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Vt. lawmakers push for mask mandate; Scott wary of ‘abusing’ emergency powers

Published: Aug. 24, 2021 at 9:08 AM EDT|Updated: Aug. 24, 2021 at 2:05 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont Governor Phil Scott Tuesday said he plans to stay the course with current state COVID guidance and has no plans to reinstate mask or other emergency restrictions to combat the delta variant surge.

As the fourth wave of the pandemic continues to push Vermont infection rates to levels not seen since last winter, health officials Tuesday said they are rolling out booster shots to complement the state’s first-in-the-nation vaccination rate of 85.6%. That will include people who got their second shot eight months ago - health care workers, first responders, and elderly Vermonters in long-term care facilities. The third dose will be administered at pop-up clinics, pharmacies, and doctors’ offices.

Federal regulators this week gave the Pfizer vaccine full approval and officials say the time to get the shot is now. “It’s always been our goal to prevent the worst effects of the virus -- that is our public health mission, and we achieve that goal through vaccination,” said Vt. Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine.

LAWMAKERS CALL FOR STRATEGIES TO SLOW DELTA SPREAD

With many schools opening this week and concerns about the delta variant infecting unvaccinated younger students, some are calling on the governor to reimpose emergency orders that would allow a statewide mask mandate. House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, says the governor needs to take stronger steps to protect vulnerable Vermonters and kids who can’t get shots yet. She says that begins with a state of emergency or a public health order. “Without having a universal policy in place with some of these strategies to slow down the virus, people are scared, people are anxious,” she said.

In a statement Tuesday, Senate President Becca Balint, D-Windham County, said many parents remain anxious about sending their unvaccinated children back to school. “It is unclear and confusing to thousands of parents across Vermont why students, faculty, and staff are not being required to wear masks in schools at a time when we have community spread of the virus and our youngest children don’t have the protection that adults have available to them,” she said.

Scott says based on hospitalization rates and other data, returning to a state of emergency is not needed right now and that doing so would “abuse” that power. “It can be utilized in a lot of different ways, misused in a lot of different ways as well,” he said. Scott accused lawmakers of playing politics. “One of the reasons we’ve had the best pandemic response in the country is that we never politicize our response as other states and other ambitious leaders have done throughout the country.”

“It’s my job to raise these concerns to the governor and I don’t think that’s political,” Krowinski responded.

Out of some 30 Vermonters currently in the hospital, state leaders say about half are among the 400,000 who are vaccinated. The other half are among the 90,000 who are unvaccinated. “We are ready to pivot. We are ready to do whatever’s necessary to keep Vermonters safe if we have to,” Scott said.

ONE-THIRD OF COVID CASES IN LAST FIVE WEEKS WERE ‘BREAKTHROUGH’

The number of breakthrough cases remains startling though. According to state health officials, they represent about one-third of all cases in Vermont for the last five weeks. For the week of July 18th, 58 out of 171 cases were breakthrough cases. The trend continued through last week with 289 breakthrough cases out of 798.

LONG-TERM CARE OUTBREAKS

There are now 62 COVID cases in long-term care facitilites statewide, according to health officials. The biggest outbreak is in the Northeast Kingdom, where there are 25 people infected at Maple Lane Nursing Home in Barton.

There are 15 cases at Ethan Allen Residence in Burlington; 13 in the memory care building at Maple Ridge Assisted Living and Memory Care in Essex Junction; and nine at the Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington.

As of Monday, Vermont health officials reported 60 new coronavirus cases for a total of 27,132. There have been a total of 270 deaths. The state’s percent positive seven-day average is 2.9%. A total of 433,298 people have been tested, and 24,731 have recovered.

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