Vermont drops guidance for masking indoors, at school
By Polly Mikula
Starting Monday, March 14, it’s ok for everyone to unmask in public, including indoors and in K-12 schools, the state announced Thursday, March 3.
“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 that day.
The new guidance goes into effect almost exactly two years after the governor first declared a state of emergency in response to Covid-19 (March 13, 2020).
The new guidance also came just three days after previous guidance for K-12 schools went into effect stating that schools should drop mask mandates only if over 80% of their students were vaccinated. The state still does not know how many schools meet that threshold, and “is still in the process of collecting that information from school districts,” Secretary of Education Dan French said at the Tuesday, March 8, press conference.
But the new guidance also states that, starting March 14, there will no longer be sector specific guidance issued. Instead, general guidelines will apply to all Vermonters — so schools along with congregate settings such as long-term care facilities, which previously were issued additional mitigation protections, will no longer be differentiated. That, thereby, renders the previous guidance for 80% vaccination at schools irrelevant.
“The guidance that we’re putting out is really under the rubric of general population guidance,” Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine clarified, Tuesday. “Both the health care sector and the long term care sector have guidance coming from CDC and from CMS. And they need to be attentive to that as they always are. Having said that, even the guidance coming from there is really focused on recovery, if you will, and on maintaining good visitation patterns — maintaining good infection control practices, of course, but not being so overly restrictive that we adversely impact the mental health of people working in such facilities,” he said.
Kelso summarized that the “general guidance” essentially means Vermonters can make their own choices: “The decision to wear masks will be up to each person based on their own circumstances.”
Levine and Gov. Scott echoed a similar summary, and asked Vermonters to remain respectful toward others.
“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.”
The governor agreed. “There should be no stigma surrounding them, and we should be accepting of people who want to wear masks.”
Scott added that masks protect the wearer as well as others, although he admitted that experts agree masks are most protective when universally used — which the new guidance rescinded.
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.”
At the March 3 press briefing, neither the governor nor members of the administration wore a mask. It was the first time since Nov. 2, 2021, they have been maskless.
Some experts have cautioned that research doesn’t back claims that unmasking is safe and the state’s decision is somewhat at odds with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC created a new rating system for the risk of virus transmission at a county level, using hospitalization and hospital capacity along with infection rates — measures that are now universally being used to measure risk, rather than case data, which is limited due to the reliance of self-reporting with rapid tests.
Using that system, 12 Vermont counties are at “low” or “medium” risk, but Bennington and Rutland counties remained at “high” risk, meaning the CDC recommends that Covid mitigation measures — specifically masking — remain in place.
Kelso said the state considered that, but decided to take a more “consistent” approach.
Scott added: “We’re going to look at this holistically — the entire state of Vermont, instead of by county, because we’re so intertwined with everyone else,” he said. “There are folks from rural parts of the states who have to drive into a heavily populated region, that work in those areas, and socialize in those areas, or shop in those areas. We’re moving around a lot.”
Kelso said that, with Covid case counts declining, she expected high-risk counties to move out of that range in the coming weeks.
Students have also suffered academically, socially and emotionally for too long, Sec. 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. This recovery planning is kicked into high gear at the state level… 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.”
For the next few weeks, school testing programs will remain in place, but will be phased out and replaced with general access to testing for all Vermonters.
“In terms of Covid testing in schools, we’re maintaining our current programs which are twofold,” Sec. French explained Tuesday. “Both programs rely on antigen testing, the rapid tests. ‘Tests at home’ is still being maintained for the time being as is what we call ‘staff assurance testing,’ which basically provides staff ready access to antigen tests, so they can maintain an awareness of their own status relative to the virus… those programs will be fading out over time. I think we’ll start to see that happen around April 1, sometime in that timeframe,” he said. “We’re going to be moving the testing towards a statewide approach as opposed to a specific strategy for schools … there will be a larger testing initiative available to all Vermonters.”
Isolation, quarantine guidelines
The state also announced Thursday that the department would be simplifying its isolation and quarantine guidance.
“Also on March 14, we will simplify our isolation and quarantine guidance,” Levine said. “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. 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.”
Levine added: “The CDC has reinforced the need to use metrics that focus on severe disease as we plan for the future. And Vermont, as a state, is seeing very low hospitalizations and impacts on the healthcare system related to Covid illness,” he said. “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.”