Officials discuss soon-to-change mask guidance and pandemic lessons

Last week, officials at Gov. Phil Scott's weekly press conference cited the falling number of severe Covid outcomes as a reason to end its masking recommendation and change its isolation guidance effective March 14.

“The decision to wear a mask will be up to each person based on their own circumstances, personal risk assessment and health needs,” Health Commissioner Mark Levine said this week.

“This will mean something different for everyone,” he said. “You may feel ready to take off your mask indoors, or you may decide to keep wearing it due to your age, or a health condition, or to protect someone at risk for more severe illness, or maybe you're just more comfortable keeping it on during this transition time.”

Levine said that recommendation may not apply to nursing homes and other health care settings because they fall under federal guidance that still requires masking.

He said the Department of Corrections is still working on guidance for incarcerated individuals and prison staff, focused on “returning to a time when visitation policies and restrictiveness can be revisited as appropriate to the circumstances.”

The federal government recently announced a new test-to-treat program that would allow high-risk people to pick up antiviral treatments at certain pharmacies and health centers. But Levine said that so far, no pharmacies in Vermont would qualify for the program, and no federally qualified Vermont health center has been told if it will be participating.

“The majority of Vermonters will still be able to both test and receive prescriptions for treatment at their primary care practices or other health care settings,” he said.

He and Scott addressed the coming two-year anniversary of the beginning of the Covid pandemic in Vermont - Friday, March 13, 2020.

“What I learned, in a scientific way and in a medical and public health way, is humility,” Levine said. “Because this is, again, something no one had encountered in a century: A pandemic of this proportion, and a virus that had never really been around to infect human beings before.”

He said one of his “lessons learned” is the power of leaders to “provide misinformation,” making it even more important for Vermont officials “to be as true to the science as possible, true to the data as possible.”

“We also need to be incredibly thankful that we live in a state where the majority of people have been aligned with us completely all along the way, which has been really a wonderful, wonderful aspect of this,” he said.

Scott said that because Vermont's worst Covid waves hit later than in other states, “we were able to avoid some of their mistakes.”

Looking back on his lessons learned, he said, a person in his position should “give as much information as you can, but do what you think is right.”

“Not what is politically right. Not what is what people are asking for all the time. But do what's right based on the information you're receiving and rely on the health experts to give you that information,” Scott said.

Covid case decline levels out

In the three weeks after Vermont topped 1,800 Covid cases per day on Jan. 9, cases dropped a whopping 63%. In the three weeks after that, the state again reported a 67% decline in new infections.

In the past three weeks leading up to Tuesday, cases have dropped about 50% and now sit at about 140 cases per day, with 48 reported on Tuesday. That's still a considerable drop, but it's a sign that Vermont's once-shocking drop after the Omicron variant wave may be leveling off.

The latest report from the Department of Financial Regulation states that the pace of case decline has “slowed” in Vermont and New England to reach “more stable low levels.”

Modeling from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that cases “are expected to remain low in Vermont, the Northeast, and across the United States throughout the month of March,” the report said.

Bennington County in particular has reported relatively high levels of Covid, with 83 cases reported in the past two weeks, according to the Vermont Department of Health. The CDC places Bennington and Rutland counties in its “high” transmission category, while the rest of New England is labeled as “low” or “medium.”

Vermont reports the eighth-highest Covid case rate in the nation, with 24 cases per 100,000 people, compared to 13 per 100,000 nationally, according to The New York Times. However, it should be noted that other states have reported dramatic drops in testing that could lead to the appearance that their case counts are lower.

In contrast, Vermont reports the lowest hospitalization rate in the nation, with only four Covid patients per 100,000 people, The Times reported. The state is 13th-lowest in terms of deaths per capita.

The state report stated that new hospital admissions for Covid have fallen about 36% in the past week, with about four Vermonters hospitalized each day with the virus. Currently, there are 22 Covid patients in Vermont hospitals, including four in intensive care units.

Deaths appear to be declining as well. The state dropped from an average of about three deaths per day in February to about one a day in the past week, according to the state report. The health department said there had been one additional death on Tuesday, for a total of 608 throughout the pandemic.

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