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Vermont Senate leader calls on governor to declare new COVID state of emergency

Vermont Senate Pro Tem Becca Balint
Vermont Legislature
Vermont Senate Pro Tem Becca Balint

The head of the Vermont Senate is raising the alarm about growing COVID-19 cases. Democratic Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint made the statement Thursday after the state recorded nearly 600 new cases — the highest number to date. Balint calls the situation “unacceptable” and says “the administration’s plan is not working.”

Governor Phil Scott, a Republican, has urged the state’s unvaccinated residents to take the shot, and says COVID is now a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Three-quarters of the state population is fully vaccinated, but COVID cases have grown by more than half in the past two weeks. Balint, from Brattleboro, hopes to meet with Scott Monday. She spoke with WAMC’s Ian Pickus late Friday.

You say that the state's current plan is not working. What isn't working?

So once we declared that the emergency was over, and that was right around the beginning of July, things looked really different. So we had very high rates of vaccination. And we had lots and lots of compliance around masking. And what we saw was a very little community spread. What we're seeing right now is a lot of community spread. It is true that we still have very high vaccination rates. But significant numbers of Vermonters still aren't vaccinated. And that is really driving this surge. One of my main concerns is that we have a dwindling number of ICU beds. We haven't had such a low number of available ICU beds since the beginning of the pandemic. And I'm very concerned that anyone as of course, as we're heading into flu season as well, who might also need to be able to be in an intensive care unit bed is not going to have that that available because we have such high community spread right now.

For his part, Governor Scott has said much of what you've just said, that the numbers are trending in the wrong direction. He is concerned about hospital capacity. But he said it's not time to declare a state of emergency. Do you disagree?

I do disagree. And the reason why is I met with the governor back in August, as we were first experiencing the Delta variant surge. And at that point, he and his team had tried to assure me and the Speaker of the House that they anticipated that the surge would plateau in a number of weeks. And so here we are months later, it's going completely in the wrong direction. And we have asked the governor, like, at what point will it be an emergency? We have more cases now than we've ever had them and very little mitigation practices in place. We're also concerned that there are local communities, so my home community of Brattleboro that wanted to be able to enact its own masking policy ordinance locally, and was told that they couldn't do that. And what I'm hearing from lots of municipalities across the state is they want to be able to have the tools they need to fight it on the ground in their communities. All this to say, when you have a situation that is going only in one direction, which is every day, you know, our case numbers are high, we're heading into the holiday season, we have to be honest that just urging people to have personal responsibility around this issue is not working. We need to come together with the governor and figure out another way forward because we are I don't think serving the people of Vermont well with the current strategy.

Specifically, though, it's not as if the governor can force every resident to take the vaccine. So what should he do?

Well, when he got rid of the state of emergency, he also got rid of any kind of masking policy for the state. And he has pivoted back to this sense of just, you know, people will do the right thing. You know, we don't need to give Vermonters an indoor masking mandate. And I just think that this is not borne out by what we're seeing on the ground that a lot of people who are unvaccinated, even some more vaccinated are still spreading the virus and we should go back to a public health tool that we know works, which is masking.

You know, Vermont for much of this pandemic was a national model. Spread was very low. Vaccine rates were high, death numbers in Vermont were way lower than neighboring states and national numbers. What happened?

I think what happened is that there was a belief on the part of the governor's team that if we put most of our effort assists on vaccinating that what we would see is a reduction in the amount of community spread. And I do want to give credit where credit's due, there was an incredible job done by the governor and many parts of state government to make sure that so many Vermonters were able to get vaccinated. But what we're seeing is that this variant finds the people who are not vaccinated. And that is, you know, a couple pockets in the northern part of our state, which has very low vaccine take up rates, and also, our college age students are, are also being very little on the uptake for the vaccine. And so we're dealing with a variant that we didn't have in play back in July, we didn't understand the extent to which the virus would mutate. And so when the conditions change on the ground, I think we have to stand back, reassess and, and make a new plan going forward.

I want to ask you about another important aspect of all this, which is, you said that you're one of the parents who is dealing with students not being able to go to in-person school right now, due to COVID spread. Say more about that. What's going on?

So you know, I'm talking to a lot of parents, partly because I'm the pro tem and the senator from Windham County, but also because I am a mom of an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old, and I'm talking to parents every day about what it feels like. They're afraid the phone is gonna ring. Because when the phone rings, and the most of the time, it's their landline, or cell phone, and it means the school is calling to say that there's been an exposure. And that was the kind of thing that really didn't happen that much last year. But when it did happen, we did have social supports in place to help with that situation. So we had unemployment benefits that were higher, we had situation where schools could pivot to online learning. And right now, you don't have any of that in place. So I'm fortunate in that I have a job that allows me to move my schedule around in a way that, you know, salaried people are able to do that. And our workforce of hourly workers, people can't just drop everything from their shifts and in, pick up their kid and then be home with them for a week while they quarantine. And so it's one of the things I've tried to convey to the governor and his team for months, that parents here in Vermont, many of them are at their breaking points, because they're not able to return to work. And I know this is also very important to all of us and state government is that we have a workforce crisis, and this particular surge in the Delta variant is making our workforce situation worse.

So again, you know, I understand that you would like to see a masking mandate back put back into place, but what would you do with this percentage of the population that just will not get vaccinated?

You know, I don't think there's anything that we can do, we cannot force mass vaccination upon people. But what we can do is give schools for example, the support, they need to deal with this situation so that we're not in a situation. You know, every few days when more and more kids are being sent home, a lot of the management of the pandemic, because we're no longer in a state of emergency, the management of the pandemic has shifted to individual teachers and school nurses and, you know, small businesses on the front line, who want to feel like we're all playing by the same rule that everybody knows what the expectations are, around how we interact with each other in public. The vaccination piece, we're going to keep letting people know that that is one of the best protections they can do for themselves and the people around them. But you know, there are going to be some people who are unreachable, unreachable because they're, they're not feeling comfortable with the science and all of us and state government are going to continue to try to figure out how to reach those people because it only it isn't just putting them at risk is putting family members at risk too.

What kind of response have you gotten from Governor Scott?

You know, I have to say the governor's team did engage with me yesterday and today trying to find a time when we could we could come together and have a meeting. We weren't able to make it work for today, because both of our schedules were so chaotic today, but we're hoping on Monday that we will be able to sit down and figure out what steps we can take together you know, the legislature and the executive branch to try to pivot. This is not going the way any of us wanted it to go. We want to get back to the place where Vermont is leading the nation. We like to be in that place of being great Vermonters taking care of each other. And that's really the pitch that I want to make to the governor is that there's a lot of people in the state who feel proud of the work that we did for that first year of the pandemic. We want to get back to that place where it feels like we're working together.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.