Experts urge flexibility with Vermont’s reopening timeline

Note: This story is more than a week old. Given how quickly the Covid-19 pandemic is evolving, we recommend that you read our latest coverage here.

Christine Brown of Castleton gets her second shot of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine from pharmacist Hannah Ojala at Kinney Drugs in Bomoseen on Tuesday, April 6, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Is July 4 too soon for a full reopening of the state? Or is it about time? 

Reactions to Gov. Phil Scott’s timeline for lifting most Covid-19 restrictions by July 4 have ranged from nervous to eager.

Betsy Bishop, president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, said Tuesday that she was thrilled at the announcement.

Business owners, especially in the hospitality and event industries, have been eager to plan for the coming months, she said. “All of those businesses have been just waiting for: What is the plan? Will we have a summer season?”

Staffing has been a major concern, Bishop said. Businesses that have scaled back or been dormant for the past year will need to rehire before vaccinated residents and tourists start seeking services again.

“There's an eagerness for that,” Bishop said. “This lays out that path based on the science and the data and the increased vaccination rates.”

Scott’s plan sets four phases for lifting travel restrictions, allowing mass gatherings and relaxing guidelines for businesses.

The first three phases include a start date based on projections for the state’s vaccination rate. The governor said Tuesday he hopes the plan will encourage people to get their shots, “because this is all predicated on people doing the right thing.”

Public health experts said the strategy could be effective.

“I think it’s dangling a carrot,” said Pam Berenbaum, director of the Global Health Program at Middlebury College. “I think that what the governor is signaling here is that this is not going to last forever and that we have something to look forward to.” 

The risk, Berenbaum said, is that the plan could create confusion if the governor’s suggested timeline changes.

Mass vaccination campaigns get harder in their later stages, she said, as more people play “the herd immunity game,” saying, “I want everybody else to take on the perceived risks of the vaccine, and I'll benefit because everybody else will be protected.”

If the state’s vaccination rate slows, Berenbaum said, changes to the timeline could be difficult to convey: “People will sort of hear one thing, but then they won't tune in to the news to hear if it's changed.” 

“I'm optimistic that we will reach those targets and the plan can go forward,” she said. “But if it doesn't, then it's going to look pretty messy.”

Aditya Khanna, an epidemiologist and behavioral sciences professor at Brown University, said leaders should be emphasizing flexibility in their reopening strategies.

“We can make plans, but how well we're able to stick to the timeline would depend on the reality on the ground,” Khanna said.

The rapid rise of Covid variants makes the next few months less predictable, he said, and case rates may provide a better benchmark than vaccinations for how prepared a state is to reopen. 

“If vaccine deployment is going up, yet transmissions are going up too, then does it really make sense to stick with the original plan just based on vaccine rollout?” Khanna said. “I don't think so.”

Scott declined to say Tuesday whether a vaccination rate below the benchmark for a given phase would trigger a delay. “We will be making changes along the way, if necessary,” the governor said, “but we do believe that we'll be able to accomplish this.”

Mark Levine, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, said metrics other than vaccination rates would play a role in future decision making about the timeline. “It's all part of a grand picture still,” he said.

This week's Deeper Dig podcast: Is Vermont ready to reopen?

Risks skew younger 

Mark Frier, the owner of four restaurants in Stowe and Waterbury, said he had mixed feelings about the plan.

A key component is the shift for certain businesses from more restrictive “sector-specific guidance” to broader “universal guidance,” which includes basic measures including mask-wearing and 6-foot physical distancing.

Frier said he would be relieved to no longer require reservations or monitor patrons’ adherence to multi-household gathering rules, and the loosening of travel restrictions would likely bring more tourists to his restaurants.

But he is also concerned about the safety of his staff. Most employees will only become eligible to receive the vaccine under the state’s age banding schedule, with no priority given to service workers. State data from January through March showed that food service employees in Vermont had the highest rate of Covid-19 infection of any occupation in the state.

“I'm concerned that all of a sudden, staff that hasn't yet had access to their vaccines are now having to be in an environment that's quite a bit loosened,” Frier said. “And I see that as being incredibly unfair.”

Anne Sosin, a policy fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College, said lifting restrictions on businesses and travel could have a disproportionate impact on younger populations, who are not yet eligible under the state’s vaccination schedule. 

Officials have often tempered high case numbers with data that shows that new cases are concentrated in younger Vermonters, who have a lower risk of hospitalization and death. Sosin said we now know that many of those younger Vermonters will develop “long Covid,” a form of chronic disease that causes fatigue and brain fog, among other symptoms.

“There are young people who are infected in March of 2020 that have lingering symptoms who are unable to work because of this debilitating illness,” she said. “That really upends our thinking about these easy tradeoffs between lives and livelihoods that are in front of us right now.”

Mark Levine, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, emphasizes the risk of long Covid when encouraging young people to follow public health guidance. But Sosin said there is a disconnect between that warning and the policy measures put in place to address the risk. 

“Our very narrow focus on death will leave us with this population of young people that will suffer long-term impacts from a very short period of time.”

Sosin also said the news of lifting restrictions is at odds with Vermont’s plan to reopen schools for in-person instruction this April. School cases have risen recently, with more than 100 reported in the past week, an increase from the 50-100 range in late February and early March.

When Vermont shut down in November, officials cited not only the desire to save lives, but also to keep schools open, she said. “Right now, as we see cases at their highest level since the start of the pandemic, we see significant disruptions to schools,” she said.

Although K-12 cases are driven by community transmission, not in-school transmission, they can still have an impact in the classroom, she said. 

“However, frequent introduction of cases into schools, even where educators have been vaccinated, is highly disruptive to academic operations across all grade levels,” she said. “If a child is infected and comes to school, it means you have to contract trace the classroom. You're taking out pods. You are often taking out staff. That incites fear among educators and families.”

Education Secretary Dan French said Tuesday that new guidance for schools would be announced later this week.

Pam Berenbaum from Middlebury College said other unknowns around the virus and the vaccines are still in play, such as the extent to which vaccinated people can still transmit the virus or how long immunity after vaccination lasts.

“I've noticed the public has had, I guess, limited patience for how much of the science remains unknown,” she said. “And we just have to be flexible.” 

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Mike Dougherty

About Mike

Mike Dougherty is a senior editor at VTDigger leading the politics team. He is a DC-area native and studied journalism and music at New York University. Prior to joining VTDigger, Michael spent two years as a program coordinator for the Vermont Humanities Council. Before moving to Vermont in 2015, he spent seven years managing recording operations for the oral history nonprofit StoryCorps, assisted Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, and contributed to the Brooklyn-based alt-weekly L Magazine.

Email: mdougherty@vtdigger.org

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