Vermont workers groups criticize shorter Covid-19 isolation guidelines

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A nurse tends to a Covid-19 patient in the ICU at the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington on Dec. 13. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

A Scott administration recommendation to cut the isolation period for people with asymptomatic Covid-19 has garnered criticism from Vermont workers in sectors stretched thin by the pandemic.

Gov. Phil Scott’s administration is following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation to cut the minimum isolation period after a positive Covid-19 test from 10 to five days. As of Monday, the CDC advises people should continue to isolate for as long as they have symptoms. And even after coming out of isolation, they should continue to wear a mask for another five days.

A spokesperson from Scott’s office on Wednesday said the administration plans to “follow the guidelines broadly” but did not elaborate. He said the Vermont Department of Health likely would issue Vermont-specific guidelines by Thursday.

The move to cut the isolation period by half comes as businesses in Vermont and the rest of the nation in virtually every sector struggle to fully staff their rosters. Shortening isolation time would keep pandemic-related economic disruptions to a minimum, CDC officials said. 

The staffing impact on the state’s health care industry, already under pressure before the pandemic, is perhaps the most visible. Health care systems have by and large leaned on expensive temporary workers, but lack of staff also has led to shutting down beds and delays in routine screenings and surgeries.

Tim Lahey, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Vermont Health Network, said this kind of delayed care poses a real risk to patients. 

“We know that there are cancer surgeries being delayed all over the country,” he said. “I think that’s the challenge. Sometimes people are reacting to this guidance as a risk in isolation but actually, I think there's a counterbalancing risk that the CDC is trying to mitigate.”

But critics of the approach say the recommendation prioritizes economics over health. It may even backfire, said Ellen Schwartz of the Vermont Workers’ Center, a grassroots organization.

“I just — I don’t buy it,” Schwartz said. “I just don't think that making conditions less safe, either in the short term or the long term, is actually going to both increase the number of people in the workforce and sort of set us up for the future.”

Vermont is contending with its worst Covid-19 wave yet. On Wednesday, the state recorded a record 940 new cases. The surge has prompted some labor unions, including the University of Vermont Medical Center’s Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, the Vermont AFL-CIO and the Vermont State Employees’ Association, to question the policy. 

“On the one hand, you could have saved those five days, but what happens if everybody starts getting sick and everybody is out for five days?” said Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees’ Association.

The Vermont AFL-CIO is also opposed to the change. President David Van Deusen said via text that until 90% of Vermonters are vaccinated and boosted, “we support a 10-day quarantine period for those not fully up to date with their vaccines … as long as employers do the right thing and afford all workers that time off, paid, without employees having to dip into that earned leave accruals.”

Darren Allen, a spokesperson for the Vermont Chapter of the National Educators’ Association, said the organization was still trying to analyze what the guidance means in practice. 

“We’re going to need to see how the new quarantine requirements intersect with the new testing requirements and intersect with what happens out there in the world,” he said. 

“We need to continue to do everything we can to keep schools safe,” Allen said, including getting fully vaccinated and following health and safety practices in school and at home.

Meanwhile, businesses are supporting the new guidelines.

“Folks are welcoming the shortened timeline, but also surprised it came quickly,” said Betsy Bishop, president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. 

Bishop said as soon as the CDC announced new guidelines, the Vermont Chamber of Commerce started getting phone calls from member businesses about what the new guidelines would mean in Vermont. 

“We need to just hear that both Vermont guidance and CDC guidance are in alignment because what we cannot have is two different ways of looking at that because that just causes confusion,” Bishop said. 

Bishop said employers have found a road map for them posted by the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development helpful. The Vermont Chamber of Commerce is asking the agency to update the road map to reflect the new CDC guidelines. 

[Looking for data on breakthrough cases? See our reporting on the latest available statistics.]

Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said Tuesday that the state was immediately adopting the CDC guidance — but later in the same press conference, Scott said his administration would need to discuss the guidance further and may come up with recommendations that were “a little bit different” than the CDC ones.

Some scientists have criticized the guidance for not requiring a negative antigen test before coming out of isolation. At the same time, demand for rapid antigen tests has ramped up in recent weeks. Vermont ran out of antigen tests to hand out at free testing sites last week in a pre-holiday scramble. 

Lahey said the federal agency based its policy on “imperfect” data that nevertheless shows the risk of transmitting the virus drops dramatically in people with asymptomatic Covid-19 after five days. The masking guidelines, he said, bring the risk down further. Lahey said he would have liked the CDC to recommend testing after five days to minimize the risk even more. 

But Tom Dee, president and CEO of Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, said people can test positive long after they stop being infectious. Officials at the Bennington hospital have put the CDC policy in place on Monday and have not been met with resistance from workers.

“We think the guidelines make sense, and we’re gonna follow them,” he said.

Levine said he thinks CDC officials were trying to be pragmatic while making this decision, recognizing the speed of Omicron’s spread and its likely impact on health care and the general workforce.

“While most of the population is looking for testing just to understand their status, this would add a whole new pressure on the testing infrastructure if people wanted to test out of isolation,” he said.

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Erin Petenko

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