On September 1, 2021

Health department employees urge leaders to issue stronger Covid-19 guidance

By Lola Duffort/VTDigger

A group of 91 rank-and-file Vermont health department employees have penned a letter to the department’s leaders, begging them to take a firmer stand as the state sees a surge of Covid-19 cases.

The letter, delivered to Health Commissioner Mark Levine, State Epidemiologist Patsy Kelso and Deputy Commissioner Kelly Dougherty Thursday morning, includes signatories from across the health department. They represent a broad range of people who have worked on the state’s pandemic response, including district office staff, epidemiologists, contact tracers and public health analysts.  

“We are writing to express our deep concern at what we believe to be a lack of adequate Covid-19 prevention guidance from our Health Department to Vermonters at this unique state of the pandemic,” the letter begins.

It comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Academy of Pediatrics and a range of local experts have all urged more stringent health measures than Vermont has adopted, and two days after Vermont’s Democratic leadership in the Legislature called on Gov. Phil Scott to tighten restrictions.

“It is our belief that our current public guidance, which encourages only unvaccinated individuals to wear a mask and makes no mention of the risk of Covid-19 among unmasked vaccinated individuals, is not based on our best understanding of the way the Delta variant is spreading,” the letter says. Currently, four out of 10 cases are among vaccinated people, the letter continues.

The missive urges leaders to “publicly and strongly” recommend universal masking indoors and testing and quarantine for anyone determined to be a close contact to a Covid-19 case — regardless of vaccination status. It also asks them to encourage Vermonters to get tested before and after large social gatherings, to avoid traveling to high-transmission areas, and to test before and after out-of-state travel.

Scott dropped his emergency order and basically all restrictions earlier this summer when 80% of eligible Vermonters received at least one Covid-19 shot. And, despite a Delta-fueled spike in cases, the governor has held firm against reinstating any restrictions. 

The governor’s decision-making process “does — and will always”  include the input of the VDH employees who signed Thursday’s letter, Jason Maulucci, Scott’s press secretary, said in a statement. “These perspectives have been the most cautious throughout, which is greatly valued and weighs heavily in every decision. If they feel unheard, that is an issue we can address internally — but there is no doubt that these opinions have been shared and are part of a thorough analysis and deliberation among our entire leadership team,” he wrote. 

Maulucci continued that “none of the recommendations presented in the letter are, or ever have been, off the table.”

“The governor will continue to rely on his team of experts and weigh all input and consideration when making decisions and has always shown a willingness to change strategies to keep Vermont moving forward,” he added.

Levine, in a message released Thursday afternoon, praised department staff for all they’ve done “at an unrelenting pace for more than 18 months.”

“Like you, leadership at the department have followed the data and science since the start and throughout every phase of the Covid-19 response,” the commissioner said.

However, he went on to say that, “as a department, we have to recognize that in a global pandemic, public health recommendations are a significant factor, but not the sole factor in the state’s policy decisions. Our recommendations are weighed alongside many other aspects that have statewide implications, including areas such as mental health, substance misuse, economic security, overall public confidence, and commitment to mitigation measures and more.”   

The state reported 120 new Covid cases on Aug. 25, in line with recent daily totals. Officials at the governor’s weekly press conference Tuesday emphasized that the rate of increase was slowing. Cases are expected to soon plateau and then decline, they said. But there were 35 people hospitalized with the virus Wednesday, the highest since the spring surge. And while forecasts from earlier this month projected six deaths, at most, in August, 11 people have died from the virus this month so far. The health department  is now projecting as many as 18 fatalities in August.

School districts, meanwhile, restarted classes this week with just two pages of nonbinding guidance from the state. Experts have criticized the guidance for falling short of what’s needed to keep kids safe given levels of transmission, and school officials have said it leaves local administrators filling in too many blanks.

“The rate of Covid-19 among 6-11-year-olds in Vermont is higher than any other age group,” the letter reads. “This group is currently ineligible for vaccination and could be exposed to Covid-19 by vaccinated family members, teachers, or friends who believe they are doing all they need to do to prevent the spread of Covid-19.”

Several health department employees who work directly on the state’s response to the pandemic have spoken to VTDigger in recent days to express frustration with the department’s public stance. Fearing professional repercussions, all spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The guidance and messaging coming out of the department has become politicized, they said, and was not giving Vermonters enough information to accurately assess their own risk.

“The perception that I and others have is that it’s been out of public health hands for a while now,” said one employee who works in the health surveillance division.

On Tuesday House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, issued a statement ahead of the governor’s press conference, urging him to do more to tamp down viral transmission. Senate Pro Tem Becca Balint, D-Windham, soon followed with her own, echoing Krowinski’s call. Scott dismissed both as “playing politics.”

Listening to the press conference at home, another health department employee said they were outraged. 

“Oh my gosh, I was like — ‘That’s exactly what you’re doing.’ He’s playing politics to a T,” the employee said.

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