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Reporter debrief: Scott admin urges unvaccinated adults to consider 'consequences' of their choices

A man stands delivering a press briefing at a podium while another man signs his comments.
ORCA Media
Gov. Phil Scott delivers the weekly press briefing on his administration's response to the COVID pandemic on Dec. 14, 2021.

Gov. Phil Scott and members of his cabinet provided updates Tuesday, Dec. 14, on the state's ongoing pandemic response.

The governor and his administration continue to urge unvaccinated Vermonters to get their COVID-19 shots , noting the strain COVID-19 hospitalizations are putting on the health care system. And they advise everyone to take precautions as people get ready to gather for the holidays.

Vermont Edition’s Mikaela Lefrak spoke with reporter Henry Epp about the takeaways from the press conference. Their conversation is below and has been edited for clarity.

Henry Epp: Things are fairly stable. They're not anticipated to go down over the next few weeks, and the administration officials actually think cases will likely rise due to holiday gatherings. They really stressed that people should take precautions as they head into the holidays.

They have sort of a range of projections, right, and they expect the cases to be on the higher end of those projections after the holidays. They also noted, you know, some of the vaccine disparities. Unvaccinated adults make up only 5% of the Vermont population, but 70% of those who are hospitalized.

The seven-day hospitalization average was relatively flat over the past week, but we're still in a period of time where we're seeing some of the highest hospitalization rates of the pandemic so far.

Mikaela Lefrak: And of course, in every single one of these press conferences, Gov. Scott and his administration and Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine are pushing Vermonters who are not yet vaccinated to go get that vaccine and then get the booster shot. But we both kind of noted when Gov. Scott's tone change this time, a bit, when he was talking about the unvaccinated, right?

Yeah. And really right off the bat, at the beginning of the press conference, he took a bit more of what I would call like, a scolding tone, you know, sort of saying if you are one of the 40,000 or so people who are unvaccinated, and you're eligible, you're making this harder for the rest of us who have gone and gotten vaccinated.

And his Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith was even a little bit more pointed. He says – this was a quote – “I realize that Vermonters have a choice, but some choices have consequences. In this case, refusing to get the vaccine results in higher hospitalizations and more stress on the health care system.”

So really, kind of laying a bit more blame on those who are unvaccinated at this point, which was a surprising change in tone.

More from VPR: Angry & fearful patients, heartbreaking decisions: St. Johnsbury hospital staff are 'exhausted emotionally'

Right. I noticed that as well. So you asked Gov. Scott if he would mandate booster shots for state employees just as he mandated the two-dose vaccine. How did he respond?

Well, he sort of said, to be fully vaccinated at this point, you should have a booster, that's sort of what the deal is at this point in the pandemic. He said that may be something that they do, but … it sounded like essentially, they haven't talked about it much. And they haven't set out a timeline, essentially sooner rather than later.

But they don't have a set date when they would require state employees to get a booster.

But I do think it is important to note that yes, as you said, that concept of being fully vaccinated now includes three shots, not just two.

Yeah, in some ways the goalposts have shifted, right. You know, we felt fully vaccinated at two doses a while ago, because of waning immunity, because of the rise of variants, that's changed.

Now Gov. Scott and Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine attributed last week's higher case count and hospitalization rates to this post-Thanksgiving surge, people gathering with family, traveling more than normal.

Did you catch any guidance about travel and family gatherings ahead of Christmas?

Yeah, Dr. Mark Levine, the health commissioner, had a few things to say about that. He said that folks should have “the talk,” in his words, before going to gatherings. Basically, “the talk” being, you know, making sure you know who is vaccinated at your gathering, who's boosted, or not, having that discussion. And then also keeping gatherings small. And then also having a testing strategy, getting rapid at-home tests, if you can, before and after gatherings.

And then if you have symptoms, staying home. And he acknowledged that that can be a hard decision to make.

Let's wrap up with a brief discussion of the omicron variant. Now it's been detected in all the states surrounding Vermont, but not in Vermont, right?

Yes, that's right. Every state and province around Vermont.

Dr. Mark Levine essentially said, you know, this is a when, not an if, you know, it's gonna show up here at some point. I was also interested to hear that Scott, to a question early on, didn't completely rule out stricter measures, you know, if it's warranted and omicron really becomes a bigger issue. The reality is we've just confirmed it over the border in Cheshire County in New Hampshire. So you know, the variant is close by.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
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