Scott admin ending mask recommendation for highly vaccinated schools in late February
Gov. Phil Scott and members of his cabinet provided updates Tuesday, Feb. 15, on the state's ongoing pandemic response.
Officials discussed masking in public schools and the impact they believe face coverings may be having on students' mental health.
That's as key coronavirus metrics continue to improve in Vermont.
Vermont Edition co-host Mikaela Lefrak spoke to VPR reporter Anna Van Dine about some of the major takeaways from the briefing. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mikaela Lefrak: Gov. Scott started today's media briefing with an important announcement about masking in schools. What is the governor and the [Vermont] Agency of Education changing there?
Anna Van Dine: So they're not exactly making a big change themselves — this wasn't a big, groundbreaking announcement. But essentially, what's going on is that back in August, the Scott administration said that schools could drop their masking requirements once 80% of eligible students were vaccinated. But the administration kept pushing back this recommendation as case counts continued to rise, first with delta and most recently with omicron. And today, what Gov. Scott announced is that it's finally time to follow this guidance from back in August. So starting Feb. 28, the administration is going to recommend that schools can drop mask mandates if they hit that 80% vaccination threshold.
"Although we remain optimistic about the trends we're seeing in Vermont, we're not ready to jump to a recommendation for the removal of masks altogether. But I expect that recommendation will be coming at some point," said Education Secretary Dan French.
And just to clarify, this is just a recommendation from the state — not a rule. This decision around masking is up to each individual school district. Do we have a sense here of how many school districts have hit that 80% vaccination rate already?
It was unclear. Gov. Scott was asked about this, and he didn't have a number. And he said he'd have more data next week. But I didn't get the sense that it was a majority of schools, although we could reasonably think that there are a few that that have hit that target. But at the same time, it is conceivable that a school district will decide that masks can be removed before hitting that threshold, because these are, again, guidelines — not rules.
Scott and members of his administration repeatedly emphasized that they're making this recommendation because cases are declining, and because they want to get students back to normal as soon as possible. What what did we hear about that?
What Gov. Scott said was that the calculation that he and members of his administration made was about students' mental health. He said, to quote him, that the risk of kids not being able to see the faces of friends, the anxiety that comes with a reminder of the virus and just the general strain on kids' mental health — those were the things he mentioned — that trying to mitigate some of that outweighed the risks of COVID at this point, with declining case numbers and with high vaccination rates.
Although it is worth noting here that some public health experts have called this out as an assumption, saying that there's a lack of definitive evidence that directly supports this kind of correlation between masks and kids' mental health. For example, there was some reporting in the New Republic that came out last week, pointing out that there are very few studies on masks and child development. So we know that there are a lot of sources of anxiety for kids right now and disruptions in their lives, but it's hard to isolate what effect masks specifically have on that.
In our conversation, Anna, we keep referring to this fact that case counts, hospitalization rates have been going down recently. So let's get into some specifics here. Where are we with the numbers this week?
Omicron is declining, as it began to at the beginning of the month. So it's still going down both regionally and nationally, and in the state of Vermont. Cases are down about 29% across New England. Cases are also down among older and more vulnerable Vermonters. Hospital admissions — which is a key metric that the state is is watching — at this point in the pandemic, hospital admissions are down 30%. And the total number of hospitalized COVID patients has been under 100 for the past few days, which is a positive sign. [Intensive care unit] rates are down as well.
At the same time, [Vermont] Financial Regulation Commissioner Mike Pieciak, who does the state's COVID modeling, did say that we're still waiting for fatality numbers to come down. They're still on pace with January so far, and 30 people have died so far this month. Although Pieicak did say that he expects that rate to begin to decline.
And of course, we do hope to see that decline quickly. Now, Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine also noted some changes to the state's COVID-19 dashboard.. And these changes seem to be coming at a time when health officials and members of the administration are putting less and less emphasis on case numbers, and more on other types of tracking statistics. So what are these new updates to the dashboard?
I believe there are two. First, the vaccine dashboard will now include how many Vermonters are fully up to date on vaccines. So this means shot number one, shot number two — if it's not Johnson & Johnson — and booster. So, Levine specifically noted that a person is not fully protected without being fully up to date on the booster dose. And the other thing that the dashboard will now show is how many people are self reporting antigen tests, so that those test results will now be publicly available. And one more thing regarding boosters: Dr. Levine did note that there are about 100,000 Vermonters who are currently eligible for booster shots who haven't yet received one.