Eric Davis: Delta challenges Scott’s approach

The Vermont Department of Health reported on Monday that there were 1,553 new cases of COVID-19 reported in the state over the past two weeks, and that there were 33 people hospitalized with COVID, 13 of them in intensive care. The count of new cases and hospitalizations in Vermont is now the highest it has been since mid-April, when the percentage of Vermonters who had received at least one vaccine dose was just over 50%, compared with about 85% today.

The Department of Health also reported that, for the period from Aug. 8 through 14, 40% of the positive cases in Vermont — 288 of 725 — were “breakthrough” cases in people who had been fully vaccinated.

The increase in positive cases among children and adolescents is especially concerning. Among Vermonters between ages 10 and 19, many of whom are vaccinated, there are now 527 cases per 10,000, up 36 times from the same period a year ago. Cases among those 9 years old and below, for whom no vaccine has yet been approved, are now at 331 per 10,000, up 41 times from a year ago.

As the incidence of COVID-19 has increased in Vermont over the past month, Gov. Phil Scott and his administration have continued with their “light touch” approach to COVID-19 mitigation measures. The administration has continued to emphasize the widespread availability of vaccination sites, but has not instituted vaccination requirements, except for a limited set of state employees such as those working in correctional facilities and the Vermont State Hospital.

With schools reopening this week, the state has offered school districts a brief statement of non-mandatory guidance. The guidance asks schools to institute universal mask requirements for the first 10 days of the school year, with districts allowed to drop mask requirements once 80% of students age 12 and older have been fully vaccinated. As of Aug. 23, this guidance had not been changed, in spite of the reports of a high number of breakthrough cases and new cases among children and adolescents.

Some school districts are going well beyond the state’s guidance. For example, the Harwood Unified Union School District, in central Vermont, has instituted a universal mask requirement for all students and staff, a vaccination requirement for all staff, required social distancing of three feet and adjustments in cafeteria operations to reflect this, ventilation requirements for school buildings, and an outdoor mask requirement unless people are at least six feet apart.

Several municipalities and businesses have also decided to introduce their own mitigation measures, in the absence of state requirements. The selectboard in Brattleboro has instituted an indoor mask requirement, and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger is seriously considering issuing an order requiring masks to be worn in all offices and business establishments in the city. Weinberger has also announced that all employees of the city of Burlington must either be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.

Locally, the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op has reinstituted a mask requirement for customers and staff, while Two Brothers Tavern is requiring its employees to wear masks and to be vaccinated. Otter Creek Yoga is requiring its instructors to wear masks and to be vaccinated, and is also requiring students, who must wear masks during classes, to show proof of vaccination before they can participate.

For the first 15 months of the pandemic, the Scott Administration emphasized a “rely on science” approach, rolled out the vaccination program to as many Vermonters as fast as possible, and implemented a rigorous program of mandatory mitigation measures for schools and businesses. Once the vaccination rate reached the 80% level in June, the governor allowed the state of emergency to expire and all state mandates to lapse. Public health experts, parents, teachers, local governments, and businesses are now waiting to see whether Scott will reintroduce new mandates in light of the fast-spreading Delta variant.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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