Commentary, Opinion

Delta changed the equation; policies must change too

By Anne Sosin

Editor’s note: Anne N. Sosin is a public health researcher and Policy Fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College and the co-lead on research on Covid-19 and rural health equity in northern New England. 

Delta, we learn in science, means change. Delta changed the course of the virus in Vermont despite the state’s nation-leading vaccination coverage.

In the first two months of the school year, Delta drove a cascade of pandemic highs: the highest single-day case count, the highest seven-day rolling average, the second-highest death count, the highest case counts in schools, and the fastest growing epidemic in the U.S.

The impacts of the Delta surge were both predictable and preventable. In a July op-ed calling for an evidence-based approach to school reopening, co-authors and I wrote, “Delta spreads so easily that our thinking about how to control Covid-19 in our communities and schools must change.”

Yet, as the evidence on the need to move beyond a vaccine-only strategy mounted — and as the Delta surge claimed more Vermonters since the start of September than it did during the first eight months of the pandemic — Gov. Scott refused to change course.

Just a year after criticizing former President Trump for his lack of leadership, “particularly in this area of mask wearing, which has been scientifically proven to prevent the spread of the virus,” Gov. Scott discounted the growing evidence supporting masking policies. He rationalized decisions to buck school guidance recommendations from the CDC and minimized the death of Vermonters.

Gov. Scott’s recent approach to the pandemic not only betrays his mantra of “follow the science” but also the “village versus virus” ethos central to the state’s earlier strong performance. Last year, he enlisted Vermonters in a shared mission to protect older populations and keep kids in school and managed Covid with data-driven policies. Vermont mobilized the National Guard, the Medical Reserve Corps, health systems, schools, and mutual aid groups to keep communities safe and then to deliver vaccines to older Vermonters.

This fall, Vermont is not managing Covid. Instead, in the absence of policies and guidance reflecting the most recent evidence and recommendations of the CDC, Covid is managing our health, education and economy.

Even as children too young to be vaccinated register the highest rates of infection in the state, Gov. Scott called upon Vermonters to exercise “personal responsibility” and doubled down on a vaccine-only strategy.

As school leaders begged for help and struggled to contact-trace record-high school cases without the state support that was in place during the 2020-21 school year, his administration responded not with help, but by calling on educators to “chip in.”

Our policy choices — not the personal responsibility of our unvaccinated children — will determine both the immediate and enduring impacts of the Delta surge. Will children continue to lose weeks of school quarantining? Will they celebrate Thanksgiving with grandparents after forgoing the 2020 holiday to protect them, or mourn their premature passing in December? Or possibly it’s the grandparents that will now stay home to protect the children who cannot yet be vaccinated? Will Covid send some children to the hospital or leave them with long Covid just before they are vaccinated? Will our stretched businesses close with outbreaks as the holiday season approaches?

These are the choices that Vermont is currently making.

Absent further action, we can expect the toll of the Delta surge to grow. While the Scott administration continues to express bewilderment about the cause of the surge and the trajectory of the pandemic, many outside experts anticipate a prolonged surge similar to the United Kingdom epidemic. Modeling from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects rising transmission in the U.S. resulting from growing mobility, declining mask use, and increasing indoor activities as winter approaches.

Last year, Halloween celebrations ignited embers from a hockey outbreak into a brush fire that tripled Vermont’s death counts in three months’ time as it burned through the state’s long-term care facilities.

We do not need to return to a lockdown, close our restaurants or bars, or “cancel Christmas” as Gov. Scott suggested at a recent press conference. However, to prevent the impacts we are seeing in our communities and schools, we do need to employ policies backed by nearly two years of evidence.

Data-driven mask policies buy us more time to vaccinate children under 12 and deliver boosters to elderly Vermonters and high-risk groups. Nevada’s data-driven mask policy, described in a recent call to Gov. Scott and New England governors in USA Today, offers a model for the state. With only 32% of Vermonters currently masking as compared to 40% of Americans at present and 83% of Vermonters before the earlier mandate was lifted, this evidence-based policy will make a tangible difference.

We must also bolster support for schools and child care centers entrusted with the health and education of our unvaccinated children, rather than displace the risk and burden of our policy failures onto them. Vermont schools and child care centers cannot test or contact-trace the state out of its unwillingness to enact basic measures to reduce community transmission.

Gov. Scott and other state leaders must once again marshal all our state resources in support of our schools and families instead of cutting corners on testing, contact tracing, and other evidence-based mitigation strategies.

Absent more aggressive action, hundreds of Vermont children will continue to lose school time to quarantine periods, sidelining their parents from businesses already suffering from workforce shortages.

We have the policy tools to protect the health and education of Vermont children until they can be vaccinated. It is past time Gov. Scott makes the choice to use them.

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