On March 16, 2022

State reflects on two-year pandemic

By Polly Mikula

“If we look back two years to March 13, when I signed the emergency declaration here in Vermont, I never expected that it would last two years, not just the state of emergency, but I didn’t think the pandemic was going to last two years,” Gov. Phil Scott said at a recent news conference, March 8. “I don’t know if any of us knew what to expect.”

Indeed, no one could have predicted the course Covid would take over the two years that followed.

First, we endured schools and businesses closures, layoffs and canceled plans. We learned to navigate remote school and work. The first summer of Covid, we watched hopefully as cases fell and businesses reopened, but then watched cases rise again in the fall, peaking over the holidays. More Vermonters died in December 2020 (71) than in any other month of the pandemic.

But vaccinations were on the horizon and became available to Vermonters by age group through the winter and spring 2021, giving us a renewed hope that the pandemic would soon be over. Once again cases decreased substantially over the summer months. Vaccines were also approved for kids ages 12-17 in May 2021 and then for ages 5-11 in Nov 2021. 

In the fall of 2021, nearly all students returned to class, albeit wearing masks and with social distancing and other mitigation measures in effect.

Then the Omicron variant crushed our hopes that Covid was behind us. The new variant sent cases, hospitalizations and deaths back up to record highs in winter 2021-2022.

In January 2022, Vermont recorded 38,500 Covid cases — 2.5 times more than the next highest month (Dec. 2021 with 16,091) — in fact, cases in January made up 37% of Vermont’s total case numbers at that time. The one day record for new cases tallied was on Jan. 7 with 2,975. 

The highest number of Vermonters hospitalized with Covid also occurred in January. A record of 122 was hit on Jan. 19, and from Jan. 13-31 consistently  over 100 people were hospitalized in the state. And January was the second deadliest month with 65 deaths (December 2021 had 62 deaths, the third highest, and February 2022 had 59, the fourth highest.) Those three months saw the highest concentration of Covid deaths in Vermont, by far — nearly a third Vermonters who died of Covid, died recently.

But we now appear to have turned the corner. Cases, hospitalization and deaths are now definitively declining — and fairly rapidly. Today, we have more immunity from vaccination and past illness to protect us and we have more tools to help us live with Covid as an ongoing endemic threat. Also importantly, there is no new “variant of concern” lurking on the horizon.

It appears, two years later, that the end may actually be near.

“As Vermont passes the two-year anniversary of its first reported Covid-19 case, the situation in the state continues to improve from the height of the Omicron wave,” wrote Commissioner of Financial Regulation Michael Pieciak in his March 8 modeling presentation.

“As our statewide hospitalization rate is low, and hospitals are no longer facing the Covid-related strains of the recent surge, we’re ready to plan for the next step,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Patsy Kelso at a press conference, March 3.

Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine echoed that summary, adding: “We’re well protected against severe disease through vaccination, have more immunity in our population from infection and have ready access to testing and treatment options… we have the tools available to protect Vermonters and we are now preparing to update our public health guidance, which will reflect these new realities and help us live safely with fewer Covid-19 disruptions in our lives.”

Because of this, the state issued new Covid guidance, March 3, allowing Vermonters to go maskless indoors. The guidance applies to all Vermonters including those in long-term care facilities and schools, which had previously received specialized guidance to protect vulnerable populations.

“Starting Monday, March 14, the decision to wear a mask will be up to each person based on their own circumstances, personal risk assessment and health needs,” Levine said. “This will mean something different for everyone. You may feel ready to take off your mask indoors. Or you may decide to keep wearing it due to your age or a health condition or to protect someone at risk for more severe illness. Or maybe you’re just more comfortable keeping it on during this transition time. I want everyone to know that’s totally okay. It’s okay to be cautious and make these decisions at your own pace. And I ask everyone to be supportive of these personal choices and not judge anyone who chooses to keep a mask on.”

Levine cautioned folks to treat the change as a transition: “Remember, it’s still a good idea to keep a mask with you. And some places you may choose to go may still encourage or require them,” he said. “I urge you not to throw these masks away. And while you’re at it, hang on to your home test kits as well. As much as we’ve learned about this virus, we know it has the ability to quickly change and we must remain prepared to meet those changes if we need to.”

The state also announced simplified isolation and quarantine guidance, which also began March 14.

“If you test positive you will need to stay home and isolate for five days. If you are a close contact… you do not need to quarantine but you should get tested,” Levine explained. “Testing is still recommended if you have symptoms or an exposure to Covid-19. And we will continue to urge Vermonters to stay up to date on their vaccines and boosters to be as protected as possible.”

Lessons learned

“I think the lessons learned, from my perspective, is that we don’t have all the answers individually, that we continue to have to learn from others,” Gov. Scott said at the press conference March 8. “We were able to watch other states experiencing the pandemic before we were, so we were able to avoid some of their mistakes.”

He continued: “We also started these these press briefings, where we leveled with Vermonters and we tried to tell them what was going on. We were truthful with them — giving the good news and the bad. We worked together to listen to the science watch the data and make decisions on what we thought was best, collectively, for Vermonters and that wasn’t always popular. Not everyone agreed. But again, we tried to be forthright, transparent and explain that to Vermont. So I think if if there’s a lesson to be learned, from my perspective, is just give as much information as you can.  Do what you think is right, not what is politically right, not what people are asking for all the time, but do what’s right based on the information you’re receiving and rely on the health experts to give you that information,” Scott emphasized.

Dr. Levine agreed with Scott, adding that he was surprised by the influence of misinformation and learned the importance of trying to counter obstacles with scientific data and transparency. 

“I think certainly one thing we learned as a human race, should be humility. And what I learned in a scientific way and medical and public health way is humility… Relying on science, relying on data would have been something that I would have thought was a natural thing for most people to embrace but, as we’ve seen, we live in very polarized and divisive times,” Levine said. “So one of my lessons learned is the power of powerful leaders and others in providing misinformation, making it all the more important for political and public health figures in this state to be as true to the science as possible, true to the data as possible, and as (hopefully) full of integrity and transparency as possible. One of the basic tenants of public health in situations like this is frequent (and obviously accurate) communication,” he said.

“The reality is, this is a cause of stress across the world, and certainly in our country, and we need to understand that and continue to be understanding of what that stress has done to people. People have gotten into arguments and politicized the effectiveness of masks and vaccines. It’s terrible. Vaccines work. Vaccines are life saving,” he continued.

“Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent serious illness and the worse outcomes,” Levine said later in the press briefing, March 8. “This is the essence of why we call many viral illnesses, ‘vaccine preventable diseases.’ The word is preventable, and it’s in healthy people that you want to prevent these things.”

Looking ahead

The long-lasting pandemic has had many other impacts on Vermonters’ mental and physical wellbeing, too, that now need to be addressed, Levine said.

“It’s had impacts on our overall health, on our overall health habits and lifestyle habits on numerous, numerous aspects of our existence. So I think we need to be very humble and realize that we have a ways to go to now. It’s time to engage in what we call ‘recovery and revitalization’ and get ourselves pointed in the right direction and (hopefully) with some unity, getting there without a virus sort of lingering in our minds all the time, impacting every move we make and every action we take.”

Students have also suffered academically, socially and emotionally for too long, Education Secretary Dan French added. “We are hoping the shift of mitigation recommendations will free up capacity in schools to focus on critical education recovery work, which includes utilizing the federal relief dollars that we have at the state level to help them with their local needs… Our focus will be in two areas in particular this spring: One, addressing the academic and learning needs of students and, two, supporting the social and emotional needs of students and staff…We have our work cut out for us,” he said. “But the good news is we’re starting to get out from underneath the public health aspects that have dominated a lot of our work in schools. We are able to now really put some focused effort on the education recovery work.”

Gov. Scott recently articulated his hope for Vermont’s post-Covid future in his State Of The State address in January. “There is no doubt the last 21 months have been difficult. But if we are willing to make the most of the silver linings, there is much to be gained,” he said.

“Our success through the pandemic and the opportunity in front of us is thanks to the hundreds of thousands of Vermonters who stepped up. But there is more work to do, and it is going to take all of us, recognizing that this moment is one of service… It’s the little things, along with the big, that will make certain we meet this moment. We have a big job ahead of us, but a brighter future is within our grasp,” Scott continued. “The best education system in the country; resilient kids and thriving families; clean water, and a healthier planet; strong communities with good jobs, affordable homes, and vibrant downtowns in every corner of our state… is all within our grasp. We just need to reach out – together – and take hold.”

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