By Polly Mikula
Governor Phil Scott opened the Tuesday, July 21, press conference stating that Vermont now has the lowest number of total Covid-19 cases in country, moving past Hawaii this week to gain the top spot. “The state’s positivity rate is also among the best, if not the best in the country,” he said. “And we have not a single death in over a month.”
Dr. Levine noted that Vermont made national news recently for not having a single death since June 16. “From a national standpoint that’s unprecedented,” he said. “The Northeast region is doing much better, but most states are still reporting multiple deaths daily.”
However, while the state has maintained its low case numbers thus far, Scott and Levine, worry about the potential for another wave — possibly soon.
“Looking across the country we continue to see a forest fire shifting across south and west and across the Sun Belt,” Scott said noting that, “we’ve seen recently case numbers also rise in states moving up the East Coast,
including Virginia, Pennsylvania and others… so we need to be careful to avoid another wave of contamination.”
For the first time, Scott said he was considering expanding the existing mask mandate to make it mandatory statewide. “It’s a tool we have in the tool box,” he said.
When to use the tool will be driven by data, he continued. In addition to recent surges across the country, Scott noted that more people will be coming into Vermont in the fall with college campuses opening and more people will be indoors together as temperatures cool down — those factors, he said, could make it the right time for mandatory masks.
When asked specifically if he would announce a statewide mask mandate at Friday’s press conference when new regional data will be presented, Scott hedged.
“If it’s not Friday, it’s likely going to be sometime in the future. It looks like [the wave] is coming back toward us.”
Despite opening that door, Scott defended the status quo — a statewide recommendation rather than an mandate to wear masks.
“Right now we’ve been successful just the way we’re doing it… data hasn’t yet supported changing the status quo, but it might become necessary and there might be a right time to do it,” he said.
“I’m not convinced that if we had mandated mask policy two months ago that our numbers would be different today,” Scott continued. “But we’ll keep that tool in the toolbox and can use when necessary.”
When asked what science or data would support a mask mandate, Levine said, “The governor would be standing on very solid public health ground.” He explained that the scientific recommendations have changed since the beginning of the pandemic, with vapor droplets and aerosols now understood to play a bigger role in spreading Covid-19, and now the scientific consensus heavily favors everyone wearing masks when around other people.
Levine noted, however that he was “not sure of research that proves mandating a mask is better than recommending a mask.”
“People resist mandates. Especially Vermonters, it seems,” Scott noted. “Lots of people bristle when the government tells them what to do.”
Levine said that the state had conducted a market research study through a marketing firm that found that currently 85% of Vermonters self report that they “always or most of the time wear a mask.”
The remaining 15% have a wide variety of reasons for not wearing masks, according to the study, Levine said. “A small group don’t believe in it or want to decide for themselves what to do, some are still unclear that it works, some can’t wear masks for medical reasons,” Levine explained.