Health Care

As weekly Covid cases decline, officials monitor effects of Labor Day and school reopening

Mike Pieciak, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation, confers with Gov. Phil Scott before delivering remarks at a Covid-19 press conference on Aug. 10. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Vermont reported 86 fewer Covid-19 cases last week than the week before — an optimistic sign, state officials said at Gov. Phil Scott’s weekly press conference Tuesday. But it’s still too early to say whether the current surge driven by the Delta variant is peaking.

The effects of Labor Day gatherings and travel, as well as the return to school buildings in recent weeks, are only now beginning to show up in the data, said Mike Pieciak, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation, who leads the state’s Covid-19 modeling efforts.

The recent case numbers still warrant caution, Pieciak said. “The trend is down, but it’s not a clear trend down and it hasn’t been sustained yet.”

The state set a recent record for daily new infections on Saturday with 222 cases, and hospitalizations have reached recent highs for two consecutive days.

While no new mitigation measures are planned, Scott said the previously announced vaccination requirement for executive branch employees would take effect Wednesday. All executive branch employees will have to attest to the fact that they are vaccinated or be subject to masking and testing requirements.

That announcement last week came two days before President Joe Biden declared that all employers with more than 100 employees would be subject to a vaccine mandate.

“We think this will make workplaces safer,” Scott said Tuesday. “And as we await more details about President Biden’s executive orders, in the meantime, I continue to urge other employers to adopt similar policies, as I have for weeks.”

Scott also for the first time urged school districts to adopt vaccine mandates for teachers and staff. The state does not have the authority to mandate vaccines for school employees without a state of emergency, the governor said, but he hoped districts would use the state government as a model.

School guidance updated

The Agency of Education and the Vermont Department of Health are now updating contact tracing recommendations for schools, said Education Secretary Dan French.

The updated guidelines will allow schools to more quickly determine the vaccination status of a student, French said. The state will provide templates for contact tracing communications and a form that schools can use to collect students’ vaccination information.

The document also aims to clarify recommendations around common areas like cafeterias, buses and playgrounds, French said. Exposures in common areas will not trigger automatic quarantine for students in those environments. But the state is now recommending that schools implement seating charts in cafeterias, have classes eat together when possible and use other spaces for meals. 

Cafeterias, where students tend to sit close together and remove their masks, have become a major source of concern for parents and school administrators. The state’s initial two-page guidance for schools, issued in early August, did not address cafeterias.

Scott has committed $2 million in federal coronavirus relief funding for a state program to incentivize vaccination among student populations, French said. Grants would be tied to vaccination thresholds of 85%, 90% and 95%, and students would participate in determining how grant funds would be used at their schools. 

French said the agency was now discussing winter sports. Guidance will likely be issued in early October, he said, but all athletes should get vaccinated and participate in surveillance testing in the meantime.

Testing and tracing complaints

The state is responding to an uptick in complaints about testing availability and turnaround time for results, said Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services.

State data has not shown a significant decrease in access or turnaround time, Smith said. Thirty-three state-run testing sites and 21 pharmacies are offering appointments and walk-in availability, and the average turnaround time for results was 1.6 days for the week ending Sept. 4.

However, more Vermonters appear to be reporting testing issues. In some cases, parents whose children are sent home from school for Covid-like symptoms may lose several days of learning while they wait to get cleared.

Smith said staffing issues are partly to blame. Earlier in the year, testing sites began to allow more walk-in patients. Now, with more appointments being scheduled, a large number of walk-ins can quickly overwhelm a given site. 

Smith encouraged people to schedule testing appointments whenever possible and committed to add capacity to existing testing sites and add more sites if needed.

The state is also bolstering its ranks of contact tracers in response to complaints from both schools and the general public that support for tracing new infections has dragged during the current surge. 

The state now has the equivalent of 104 full-time employees assigned to contact tracing, Smith said. Earlier this month, just 26 health department employees and four from other departments had been assigned to contact trace, according to Seven Days.

Smith blamed the gap on AM Trace, a contractor employed by the state in May to conduct the bulk of its contact tracing work. 

“The contract calls for them to increase their workforce as Covid-19 positive case counts increased. Recently, they failed to do that sufficiently, leaving the state to fill the gap,” Smith said. The state plans to reassign more state employees or National Guard members as needed.

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Mike Dougherty

About Mike

Mike Dougherty is VTDigger’s digital editor. He is a DC-area native and studied journalism and music at New York University. Prior to joining VTDigger, Mike 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: [email protected]

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