Vermont extends school masking timeline, presses vaccinations for state workers

  • Cody DiBernardo takes a selfie with his 14-year-old daughter, Chloe Benson, on her first day of freshman year Bellows Falls Union High School, in Westminster, Vt., on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP) Kristopher Radder Brattleboro Reformer

Published: 9/8/2021 9:26:41 PM
Modified: 9/8/2021 9:26:47 PM

MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott’s administration is recommending schools require masks for students and staff at least until Oct. 4, revising earlier, more optimistic guidance.

And, effective Sept. 15, all employees in the executive branch of state government will have to attest that they’ve been vaccinated or be subject to masking and testing requirements.

State officials said at a news conference Wednesday that masks were needed in all schools because of the high level of community COVID-19 transmission in Vermont due to the delta variant.

“We continue to be challenged by the higher transmissibility of the delta variant,” said Secretary of Education Dan French. “There is quite a bit of virus activity in our community, so we should not be surprised to see it show up in our schools as well.”

The initial guidance, issued early August, suggested schools could allow vaccinated people to unmask if 80% or more of the eligible student body was vaccinated.

But the plan encountered opposition from some Vermonters, including four Vermont medical organizations that issued a statement last month advocating that the mask recommendation continue indefinitely.

The state has already reported at least 81 cases in schools, and at least three schools have temporarily sent students home due to COVID-19 cases.

The case counts so far are higher than at this time last year, but French said the fact that all schools are open for in-person learning could be playing a role. “We have approximately 80,000 students in person right now in school,” he said.

“And that’s a tremendous achievement compared to last year, where we were with the uncertainty of hybrid (learning), and you know we had some schools that didn’t open at all,” French said. “We can’t afford to see our students go through another year like last year.”

Scott has said the state cannot impose a mask order on school districts because Vermont is no longer in a state of emergency. But, so far, only one school, an elementary school in Canaan, has not followed the state guidance, officials said.

French also announced an incentive program for schools to hit vaccination targets. Up to $2 million in grants is available to schools that meet certain vaccination benchmarks. Students would play a role in determining how the money was spent. French said the specifics of that grant program were still being finalized.

The state plans to begin student surveillance testing soon as well. Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, said 67 schools from 23 supervisory unions are set to begin testing in the next week, with more schools to come by the end of September.

He said increased testing demand overall has led to longer wait times for walk-in tests, and he encouraged Vermonters who want to get tested to make an appointment, rather than just show up.

New vaccine requirement for state workers

All executive branch employees will have to attest to the fact that they are vaccinated or be subject to masking and testing requirements starting Sept. 15, Scott said Wednesday. The Vermont State Employees’ Association, which represents most state workers, has been notified of the new requirement, the governor said.

VSEA executive director Steve Howard could not immediately be reached for comment.

The state had previously imposed that requirement on corrections officials and on those who work at state-run medical institutions. With the new regulations, unvaccinated employees would be mandated to wear masks and get tested at least weekly.

“We want as many people as possible to get the vaccine because we know they work, and we feel (it) is the best way to put this pandemic behind us,” Scott said. “I continue to urge other employers to follow suit.”

101 nursing home cases reported

Seven of Vermont’s 158 long-term care facilities have reported coronavirus outbreaks to the state as of this week, according to data released by the state Department of Health. More than 100 infections were reported in Vermont’s long-term care facilities this week, but that’s far fewer than the peak of 1,200 cases the department documented in March.

Case numbers in facilities that reported outbreaks remain relatively stable, the state data shows. Ethan Allen Residence in Burlington, Vermont Veterans’ Home in Bennington and Cedar Hill Skilled Nursing Facility in Windsor each saw one additional case this week. Two facilities — Maple Ridge Assisted Living and Memory Care in Essex Junction and Maple Lane Nursing Home in Barton — were removed from the list.

The total number of cases across all facilities also remains unknown, since the state’s list does not include cases in facilities that have not reported outbreaks. State health officials recorded 16 such cases last week, Health Commissioner Mark Levine said at a press conference last Tuesday.

Daily data skewed by Labor Day reporting

Vermont’s latest case data followed earlier forecasts that the latest surge would slow down and reach its peak in the near future, said Mike Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, which compiles the state’s COVID-19 statistics.

But he cautioned that the Labor Day holiday weekend could have led to a lag in testing and reporting, particularly at a regional and national level.

Vermont reported 1,135 new COVID-19 cases in the past week, up from 968 the week before. That’s a 17% increase in cases, compared with a 22% increase the previous week, according to the state statistical report.

The case rate among unvaccinated Vermonters continues to be higher than vaccinated Vermonters, although case totals in both groups have increased. Unvaccinated people have a rate of about 35 cases per 10,000 people, compared with a rate of 10 per 10,000 for vaccinated people.

Cases have been declining in Chittenden and Washington counties, which have reported the highest numbers in the past month. But Washington County continues to report the highest case rate in the state.

School-based cases may be having an effect on infections in children as well. Cases among children 12 and under have risen from fewer than 20 to more than 30 per 100,000 people over the last two weeks.

Cases are highest among children ages 5 to 9, followed by those 4 and younger, with older children far below, according to the state’s statistical data.

The state’s data shows 36 cases among Vermont colleges and universities in their second week of the academic year, down a tick from 37 the previous week. About 94% of students are vaccinated and 2% were granted an exemption.

Vermont continues to struggle with severe complications from COVID-19. There are currently 32 people hospitalized with the virus, up from 29 the day before. More than half of all hospitalizations are among unvaccinated Vermonters, who have a six-times-higher rate compared to vaccinated Vermonters when the size of each population is taken into account.

Four people have died from COVID-19 so far in September, compared with 18 people in August. It’s unclear how many deaths in this surge have been linked to vaccinated Vermonters.

Another 2,526 people started the vaccination process this week, down from 2,761 last week. Vermont now has the third-highest vaccination rate in the nation, behind Massachusetts and Hawaii.

In total, 86.6% of eligible Vermonters have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine.

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