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Covid-19 guidelines are changing — but, like the virus, they haven’t entirely disappeared.
As of Monday, recommendations from the Vermont Department of Health have relaxed. Masks are no longer broadly recommended, according to the state, and guidelines around isolation and quarantine have been minimized. The health department now recommends that people who test positive isolate for five days, with no additional testing or masking recommendations.
“The COVID-19 virus will be with us for a long time,” the new guidance says. “Vermonters have the tools needed to protect themselves and others from getting or spreading the virus.”
The changes follow updates in late February from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Federal guidance now relies on a new set of metrics, called “community levels,” which take into account hospital capacity as well as case rates.
Under that rubric, which has drawn mixed reactions from some public health experts, specific Covid precautions are not currently recommended throughout most of the country.
As the Omicron surge continues to recede, both state and federal health authorities are signaling that it is safe to return to most pre-pandemic behaviors. But there are key nuances and certain exceptions to the latest guidance. Below are answers to frequently asked questions about the shifting recommendations.
When should I wear a mask?
Masks are optional for Vermonters in nearly all settings, according to the health department.
“As the level of severe disease is low in our communities, each person can decide if they want to take precautions based on their own personal level of risk,” the new guidance says.
A person may be considered higher risk if they are older or immunocompromised, if they have certain health conditions or if they spend time with high-risk or unvaccinated people. (Children under 5 are still not eligible for the Covid vaccine.)
Local mask mandates remain in effect in certain Vermont municipalities, including Williston, Richmond and Norwich. But most towns appear poised to abandon those measures soon, and any remaining local mandates will automatically expire at the end of April under state law.
Businesses are still permitted to require masks if they choose.
Masks are also required on public transportation, in airports and in other transit hubs through at least April 18, according to the CDC and the federal Transportation Security Agency.
The CDC also recommends that people in health care settings — including home health, hospitals, nursing homes and long-term care facilities — continue to take precautions, including wearing masks.
What does the CDC recommend?
Under the new CDC rubric, masks and other protective measures would still be recommended when community levels of Covid-19 in a given county are rated “high.”
However, Vermont officials have said they do not intend to issue guidance that applies to some counties and not others. Instead, the new guidelines apply statewide — meaning that the state does not currently recommend masking even in counties that show “high” levels of Covid on the CDC map.
As of March 10, Rutland County still reported “high” CDC community levels of Covid-19, while the rest of the state was “medium.”
The agency similarly acknowledges that some people may choose to continue masking.
“At all levels, people can wear a mask based on personal preference, informed by personal level of risk. People with symptoms, a positive test, or exposure to someone with COVID-19 should wear a mask,” the CDC says.
Should my child wear a mask to school or child care?
That decision is up to parents, students and local school districts.
The state is no longer recommending that school districts maintain masking rules as of March 14, and several districts dropped their restrictions prior to that date.
Officials in those districts have emphasized that masking will be optional, acknowledging that many students and their families may choose to continue wearing masks.
All other Covid guidelines for schools have been rescinded, according to a March 3 memo from the Vermont Agency of Education. Instead, the same health department guidelines for the general public apply to people in schools.
Is it safe to gather indoors with other households?
There are currently no recommendations addressing indoor gatherings. These fall under the state’s guidance about general Covid precautions — you may choose to wear a mask or avoid large gatherings if you are at higher risk.
When should I get tested?
The health department recommends getting tested if you have Covid-19 symptoms, or if you are not up-to-date on vaccinations and become a close contact of someone who tested positive.
Free testing is still available at state clinics, pharmacies and some health care providers. At-home rapid tests are available for purchase at pharmacies, and all households can order two packs of four rapid tests for free from the U.S. Postal Service.
What should I do if I test positive?
Stay home and isolate for five days, according to the new guidance. You can safely leave your home after day five if your symptoms are improving and you don’t have a fever.
If you are at higher risk and show symptoms — specifically, if you are over 65 or have a high-risk health condition — contact your health care provider to discuss treatment options. Call 211 if you do not have a health care provider.
What hasn’t changed?
The recommendation that all Vermonters stay up-to-date on their Covid vaccinations. Health experts and officials agree that vaccines continue to provide the strongest protection against severe illness and death from Covid-19.
Booster shots are available to anyone over 12 who received their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines at least five months ago, or received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at least two months ago.
Vaccines are available for free at clinics, pharmacies and health care providers across the state.
Will these recommendations change again?
Maybe. Health officials have left the door open to shift recommendations based on the circumstances.
“If we have learned anything about COVID-19 over these past two years, it is that the virus is good at evolving,” Health Commissioner Mark Levine said Monday in a press release announcing the new guidelines.
“With many surges and new variants, nearly all of us have been affected in some way, and too many have suffered serious illness and tragic losses,” Levine said. “I am hopeful we are finally coming to the end of the pandemic, but that will only be the case if people are thoughtful about their safety and activities — and stay up to date on vaccinations.”
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