Health Care

‘Monkey wrench’: How the Delta variant caught Vermont off guard

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.

More than two months since the more contagious Covid-19 strain began driving up case counts, the gulf between many public health experts and Gov. Phil Scott's administration is only widening. Photo illustration by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

As the pace of vaccinations slowed this spring, some experts began floating a new vision of Covid-19’s future as an endemic virus. 

Rather than focusing on herd immunity — the threshold at which enough people had been vaccinated or previously infected that the full population would be protected against the disease — endemicity provided a more realistic goal, they said. The public would manage a certain number of infections, hospitalizations and deaths per year, as it does with influenza or other viruses.

That was the reality state officials were planning for early in the summer, Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine made clear on Aug. 31. Instead, he said, “the Delta variant threw a little monkey wrench into that whole thing.”

It’s too early to guess when Covid could become endemic, Levine said at the time. Low vaccination rates in other parts of the U.S., and even lower rates around the globe, give the virus more opportunities to spread and mutate. “It's going to take quite some time,” he said, for those regions to catch up to the Northeast.

But barely a month later, learning to live with the virus has increasingly become a part of Gov. Phil Scott’s stated strategy. Booster shots and upcoming youth vaccinations will provide the necessary protection to bring the more contagious Delta variant to heel, officials have said. In the meantime, Vermonters should take precautions when they feel it’s necessary.

“The fact is, Covid-19, like the flu, is here to stay,” Scott said at his weekly press conference on Sept. 21. “So we need to use the tools we have and what we’ve learned to help people make smart decisions at the individual level.”

Critics have argued that strategy is premature. There is simply too much virus in the state right now to leave mitigation up to individuals, according to many public health experts. 

“That word endemic is a misnomer,” said Annie Hoen, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine. “What we are experiencing with this virus is epidemic waves with exponential growth at times. That pattern calls for aggressive public health intervention.”

In recent weeks, a chorus of public health experts, medical workers, school administrators, state leaders and even rank-and-file employees of the state Department of Health have called for stricter mitigation measures. 

To them, the data shows that Vermont has reached the worst phase of the pandemic yet. Infections during this period have reached record highs in both single-day counts and running averages. Hospitalizations have soared to rates not seen since last winter, and fatalities have kept pace. September was the second-deadliest month of the pandemic in Vermont, and deaths during the Delta wave have surpassed those of the initial surge in March through July of 2020.

Outbreaks have occurred in high-risk settings such as prisons, long-term care facilities and schools filled with children who are not yet eligible for vaccines.

Administration officials argue that Vermont has weathered the Delta variant better than most states. It is among the three most-vaccinated states in the country, and largely as a result, its hospitalizations per capita are among the lowest. Outbreaks have fizzled out more quickly — and been less deadly — than they might have in the pre-vaccination era, Levine has said.

“I certainly appreciate everyone's concern and anxiety, frustration,” said Financial Regulation Commissioner Mike Pieciak, who leads the state’s Covid-19 modeling efforts, in an interview this week. “But we don't want to lose sight that Vermonters stepped up, got vaccinated and really saved a lot of lives.”

More than two months since the Delta variant began driving up cases, the data appears to be more subject to interpretation than ever. 

“There's a tension between what the governor and his team says each time they have a press conference about what the data is showing, and what people's experiences are on the ground,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham.

The administration’s singular focus on vaccination rings hollow to Vermonters with kids who still aren’t eligible for their shots, Balint said. She and other legislators “can't go anywhere without people pulling us aside, whether it's at the bank or the library or post office, the supermarket, saying, ‘Why don't they understand what it feels like for us to have family members who aren't vaccinated?’” 

“Whether you think we are in trouble depends on your perspective,” said Harry Chen, a physician and former Vermont health commissioner, in an email this week. A fully vaccinated person with no risk factors may see things differently than a health care worker — or a state leader.

“I believe that the public health perspective is that our community transmission is (too) high, Vermonters are getting sick and dying, stressing our health care system,” Chen said. “If you are an elected official, you have to be responsive to your constituents, and there is always a lot of gray.”

Parsing the data 

Scott earned a reputation during earlier phases of the pandemic as one of the nation’s most cautious governors. Vermont was quick to adopt preventive measures during the first wave, and the state’s policies on cross-state travel and multi-household gatherings last winter were among the strictest in the U.S.

But as cases ramped up this summer, Scott declined to adopt universal indoor masking guidance issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, then deviated from school masking recommendations by the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics. 

When Brattleboro moved to adopt its own universal mask mandate in late August, Scott blocked the measure, saying the town government lacked the legal authority to enact it. 

Meanwhile, the governor dismissed calls to action by Balint and other state leaders as “playing politics” and cast concerns from outside experts as nothing more than online chatter.

Critics say those moves indicated a shift away from a data-driven approach.

“As the evidence has evolved very quickly, I think Vermont's policymaking has lagged,” said Anne Sosin, a public health researcher and policy fellow at Dartmouth College. “There’s been a reluctance to shift course.”

Scott and his team have said that the evidence is not so clear, arguing that record-high case totals are not the cause for concern they would have been in earlier waves.

“I get it. For many months before vaccines, cases were all we talked about,” the governor said on Sept. 21. But because hospitalization and mortality rates — especially for the vaccinated — have decreased since previous waves, case numbers should be viewed critically, he argued.

Scott vowed to produce a data analysis that would prove his point — a strategy commenters quickly seized upon. “‘Find me the data that proves my hypothesis’ is most certainly not how science works,” wrote Eilat Glikman, a Middlebury College physics professor.

Why are once-reliable statistics now being cast as so slippery? According to Pieciak, it’s because major new variables have been introduced this year. Vaccines, then the Delta variant, have so drastically changed the circumstances that data from previous waves no longer provides a benchmark.

“It sort of takes this multiple-level drill-down trying to assess what the actual risk is,” Pieciak said. “And I think it's frustrating for everybody.”

Mike Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, presents the state's Covid-19 modeling numbers at a press conference on Tuesday, Sept. 28. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Those variables have also hindered the state’s forecasting abilities. Predictive models are based partly on historical data, Pieciak said. As the Delta variant was ramping up, there wasn’t yet enough information to accurately predict the course of the more contagious new pathogen. That led to mixed messages about how vaccinated people should behave.

“I do think there was maybe a misconception — among not Vermonters, I think this more broadly among people in the United States — about, you know, ‘This is the silver bullet, and now we don't have to worry about it,’” Pieciak said. 

Vaccines remain highly effective, but they must be paired with other mitigation measures when community spread reaches high enough thresholds, said Julia Raifman, a Boston University health researcher who tracks state-level Covid-19 policies.

“Vaccines reduce the chances of hospitalizations and deaths. But community spread increases the chances of cases,” Raifman said. “If you let the cases increase and don’t control transmission, then you end up with everybody in a worse situation. And that's what's happening in Vermont.”

Covid is contributing to enormous strain on the state’s education and health care systems in ways that effectively aren’t being tracked — learning loss for students sent home from classrooms, logistical challenges for parents, and staffing woes that are putting schools and medical providers at or near crisis points, leaders say. According to Raifman, pressures like those will only be relieved when community spread of the virus drops off.

‘Crisis management’

Earlier this month, Erin Brady’s third-grade son, Evan, was sent home from school to quarantine. Brady and her husband arranged their work schedules to be home with their son while he shifted to remote learning. Then, on the sixth day of a seven-day quarantine, the school detected a new positive case, resetting the seven-day quarantine clock.

Brady is a high school social studies teacher and a Democratic state representative from Williston, where she also sits on the school board. She said the quarantine-and-repeat cycle has been typical for the first month of this school year. 

“When the school phone number shows up, your heart drops,” she said. The feeling is “utter dread: ‘Here it comes.’”

Williston schools have reported 21 cases so far this school year, the second-highest total in the state, according to data from the Vermont Department of Health.

But the case numbers alone don’t reflect the “extraordinary stress” that students, parents and school administrators are feeling, Brady said. 

Last year, about five months into the pandemic, the state mandated that schools take an extra week to prepare to reopen, most with hybrid learning models. Health guidance for schools detailed how to implement universal masking, keep students distanced, manage mealtimes and more.

This year, schools opened on schedule for full-time, in-person learning with just two pages of nonbinding health guidance from the state. Since then, the Agency of Education has made efforts to clarify, then scale back, contact tracing in schools, as well as to expand surveillance testing and more recently implement a “test to stay” policy. All have fallen on schools to implement.

Ninth-graders arrive for the first day of school at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg on Wednesday, August 25, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Administrators are essentially doing full-time Covid management, setting aside the educational and leadership work they would typically be doing, Brady said. “This is very much just crisis management and triage.”

Schools in at least seven districts have closed outright due to outbreaks, some for multiple-day stretches.

In Brady’s district, every grade from kindergarten through six has seen cases and quarantines. But the impact on students remains unclear — neither the district nor the state is tracking the total number of students and days that are affected by classroom closures.

As in most districts, a classroom closure in Williston triggers a “pivot day” to allow students and teachers to get set up for remote learning. In part because there was little contingency planning this year, remote days offer less substantive work for students, Brady said, and they risk excluding families who lack the necessary equipment or child care.

According to the Agency of Education, days during which more than 50% of a school’s students are impacted by a closure will need to be made up at the end of the school year. 

“I have people in moments of levity talk about it as sort of a ‘snow day decision on steroids,’” said Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association.

The shifting guidance, coupled with the fact that a disruptive new case could arise at any time, creates an ongoing challenge for school communities, Francis said. “We're dealing with folks who, I am absolutely convinced, are doing their level best in every regard. And they're fatigued both by the duration, by the magnitude, by the complexity and by this sort of constant change.”

“It feels like the rest of the state has moved on,” wrote Brian Ricca, the superintendent in St. Johnsbury, in a VTDigger commentary this week. “The rest of the state, eligible for vaccination, has decided that school cases are not their problem, even though one of the best ways to bring down school transmission is to reduce community transmission.”

An ‘incredibly stressed system’

Jeff Tieman, President and CEO of the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, speaks as the Green Mountain Care Board considers challenges faced by rural hospitals in Montpelier on Wednesday, April 3, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger
Jeff Tieman, president and CEO of the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, in April 2019. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Health care facilities are facing a similar crunch, although for somewhat different reasons. Vermont hospitals “are seriously stressed and stretched right now,” said Jeff Tieman, president of the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems. 

Providers are seeing more patients than usual, and those patients are sicker, Tieman said. That’s largely because many people are catching up on treatments they deferred earlier in the pandemic. But the current Covid surge is increasingly making the situation worse.

Even the few dozen patients at a time hospitalized with Covid in recent weeks are adding strain, Tieman said. “If that were to significantly expand — even by a dozen patients — it would just continue to put additional pressure on an already incredibly stressed system.”

Though vaccination rates among doctors and nurses are high, hospital workers are still anxious about the risk of infection from treating so many Covid patients, said Marvin Malek, an internist and hospitalist at Springfield Hospital. 

“Everyone's kind of worried that one wrong move and you could catch this illness,” Malek said. “It’s so intensely contagious.”

Those conditions, among other factors, have worsened health care staffing shortages, leading to ripple effects across the system. 

Patients who would normally be transferred to nursing homes or psychiatric facilities are lingering in hospitals because those outside facilities don’t have available staffed beds. Meanwhile, the region’s largest health hubs, the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., have in some cases had to reject transfers from smaller hospitals of patients needing specialized care.

Topline capacity numbers don’t tell the full story, Tieman said. “There can be hospitals in Vermont that are on the precipice of crisis standards of care, which means not enough staff and resources to provide the best possible care for everyone who needs it.”

Right now that’s especially visible in Springfield, as well as in the Northeast Kingdom and Rutland County, Malek said. “We can’t afford for the administration to not do all they can to protect ICU capacity.”

Masking up

If there’s little consensus around where the surge stands, there’s even less about how to respond to it. 

Those advocating for a more aggressive approach have primarily focused on a tried-and-true method: a statewide mask mandate.

Recognizing the threat posed by the Delta variant, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in late July recommended universal indoor masking, regardless of vaccination status, for people in counties with elevated case rates. 

By mid-August, a majority of Vermont counties fit the CDC’s criteria. But Scott and Levine declined to endorse the agency’s recommendations, instead arguing that vaccinated Vermonters should use their judgment. The state’s current masking recommendations, which were last updated on Aug. 31, still include exemptions based on a person’s own assessment of their environment.

Evidence shows that universal masking policies work, said Raifman, the Boston University researcher. Earlier this month, Raifman, Sosin and other New England-based public health experts recommended that Northeastern states replicate measures like Nevada’s, which, like the CDC guidance, switches mask rules on and off depending on county-level case rates.

Tying mandates to real-time data takes pressure off both policymakers and individuals, Raifman said. “It lets people know that there's an end in sight, that tells people when to mask on, when to mask off.”

Scott said this week that, while such policies may work for other states, they’re not necessary in Vermont. Plus, any statewide measures would require reinstating a state of emergency. 

“Let's just say we do that,” Scott said, referring to a range of closures and travel restrictions. “We're going to create more panic, more fear, and just more apprehension just by doing that.”

Scott and Levine have also maintained there would be tradeoffs to implementing statewide measures, including impacts on mental health, substance use, isolation of the elderly and more.

Health Commissioner Mark Levine discusses the effect of vaccines in suppressing case fatality in long-term care facilities at a Covid-19 press conference on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Raifman said that she and other experts are largely skeptical of closure or lockdown policies at this stage — but she argued that masking should still be on the table.

“Masks are sort of the opposite of lockdown,” she said. “They allow us to be around one another safely instead of having to stay at home. And so they certainly shouldn't be lumped in with lockdown policies, or stay-at-home orders or work closures, because they actually allow us to keep going with our lives and to do so safely.”

A short-term indoor mask requirement would help Vermont turn the corner on the current surge, said Jan Carney, the associate dean for public health at UVM’s Larner College of Medicine and a former Vermont health commissioner, in an email.

“The benefit of universal masking in indoor settings is that everyone is more protected when everyone is masked,” Carney said. “I think this could help right now.”

Chen, the former Vermont health commissioner, said masks are effective — but deciding how best to encourage compliance can be complex. 

“Mandating masks indoors is both a public health and a political decision,” Chen said. However, he said, “if Vermonters are not wearing masks indoors, given our high rate of transmission, they should be mandated to protect everyone.”

Limited survey data indicates that Vermont’s current recommendations have led to only partial compliance. 

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have used Facebook surveys to poll Americans on Covid-19 benchmarks throughout the pandemic. According to the results, Vermonters who reported wearing masks in public steadily increased from late July through early September, leveling off between 55% and 60%. That’s compared to the 90% to 95% compliance rate seen throughout much of the winter wave.

Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint in the Statehouse in May 2021. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Balint, the Senate leader, has called for Vermont to adopt a data-driven masking policy like Nevada’s. But with the Legislature no longer slated to reconvene this year, action from outside the Scott administration appears unlikely.

“I think the best use of my time right now is as an advocate, who's constantly engaging with the administration about what I'm hearing on the ground, what it is schools and parents need in terms of guidance,” Balint said. 

Scott’s accusation that her stance is political remains frustrating, Balint said, when public health is in the balance. 

“I don't win if the governor’s strategy loses,” she said. “That's not good for any of us.”

The bigger picture

Viewed nationally, Vermont is hardly an outlier with its current policies.

States are roughly split on maintaining emergency orders, according to Ballotpedia. As of Sept. 27, 26 states, plus Washington, D.C., still had orders in place. Most states that had dropped their emergency orders did so well before the Delta wave began, and only two states — Alabama and Arkansas — have since reinstated orders that had previously lapsed.

A smaller minority of states have issued blanket mask mandates for schools and the general public, according to The New York Times. As of Sept. 29, schools in just 16 states, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, maintained universal masking rules. Only six states, plus D.C. and Puerto Rico, mandate masks in public statewide.

Michael Calderwood, an infectious disease physician who has led the Covid-19 response at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, said any new policies should take into account that unvaccinated people are driving the current surge. Universal mandates issued now could run the risk of frustrating vaccinated people who have so far played by the rules. 

“I think it is increasingly discouraging to folks to see that when you put these policies in place, those that are most adhering to them are the ones that are already vaccinated, at lowest risk,” Calderwood said. “The people that have done what they can to mitigate their risk are being asked to shoulder the burden because of decisions that other people have made.”

Pieciak, the Covid modeling official, said the Scott administration is grappling with that question. More cautious people are already vaccinated, getting tested when appropriate, and in most cases wearing masks indoors. “What more do you ask of that population to do, when they've done everything that we've asked them to?” he said.

Limited polling data suggests that group may welcome new measures. Multiple national surveys found that a majority of Americans support reinstating mask rules when Covid spread is high, regardless of vaccination status.

Still, Calderwood said, policies that may provide a speedier off-ramp from the Delta wave are being implemented beyond the state level. Those include vaccine mandates for large employers and government workers, as well as vaccine requirements implemented by businesses such as airlines, restaurants and entertainment venues.

“We're going to have to have policies that make it fairly difficult for the unvaccinated to do some things that are part of daily life,” Calderwood said, in order to convince them to get vaccinated and drive up overall immunity.

The weeks ahead

The Scott administration has continued to focus on vaccination as its primary strategy. 

The state has embraced the federal rollout of booster shots for Pfizer recipients, staging 72 third-shot clinics for a range of eligible people in the first week since the doses became available. (Those 65 and older, or 18 and older with a high-risk medical condition or qualifying occupation, can sign up now.)

The administration sees boosters as essential, said Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, in an interview this week.

“[Covid] is not going to go away,” Smith said. “What we’ve got to do is minimize the impact that it has on Vermonters — minimize it through hospitalizations, minimize it through death. Boosters allow us to do that.”

Youth vaccinations will further close the gap, Smith said. Pfizer is expected to formally request emergency use authorization for 5-to-11-year-olds in the coming weeks.

Vermont is preparing to work with pediatricians to speed the rollout and encourage uptake when that age group becomes eligible, Smith said. “It will be a game changer for schools. It will be a game changer for our population in general.”

Soldiers from the Vermont National Guard fill syringes during a youth vaccine clinic in Barre in May. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

The question, experts say, is whether the impacts of these additional vaccination efforts will come soon enough. 

Last year, the effects of winter sports, indoor gatherings and holiday travel combined in mid-November to drive a sustained and deadly winter wave.

This year, boosters will need to be coupled with personal caution to avoid the same outcome, said Ruby Baker, executive director of the Community of Vermont Elders.

“The more we can have those boosters in place, and have fewer people gathering who are potentially sick and children who are passing things on, the better off we will be, and the more we can protect ourselves from a holiday surge,” Baker said.

Calderwood, the Dartmouth-Hitchcock official, said projections from the hospital’s analytics institute have improved in the past month. While those models had previously projected peaks of hospitalizations that exceeded those seen in January, they now show the Delta wave remaining less severe than the winter surge.

Still, individual hospitals around the region could remain at or over capacity with those numbers, Calderwood said.

State officials have pointed to declining case numbers nationwide as a signal that Vermont’s Delta wave could subside in a matter of weeks.

But Sosin, the Dartmouth researcher, said that’s no guarantee. Personal mobility continues to increase as more businesses reopen, fall tourism kicks in and the holidays approach. “I have no reason to believe that we can expect this to just go away,” she said. 

Some highly vaccinated areas where cases have peaked, like the United Kingdom, are still seeing post-spike plateaus high enough to necessitate preventive measures.

Hospitalizations and deaths are lagging indicators, said Malek, the Springfield doctor, meaning that the health care system is likely to remain strained for weeks after cases recede.

“We're still having to be anxious and somewhat overwhelmed at work, whether it's done and they’ve declared victory,” Malek said.

Once kids can be vaccinated, Sosin said, the administration’s talking points will appear more sound. Case numbers will represent significantly reduced risk for all, and conversations about how to live with the virus will be called for.

That time isn’t now, she said. “Right now, it's really critical that we do everything possible to decrease transmission until we can get kids vaccinated.”

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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: [email protected]

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