MONTPELIER – Vermont’s COVID-19 trends took a downturn last week even as the rest of New England and large portions of the U.S. continued to see improvement.

Case counts have risen 26 percent over the past seven days in Vermont, and hospitalizations are reaching levels not seen since winter. As of Tuesday, 49 people were in the hospital. Four additional deaths were reported as well.

“Anecdotally, I would say the vaccine hasn’t been as effective in preventing the deaths with the variant as we’d hoped,” Governor Phil Scott said.

From May to July 2021, 11 Vermonters died of COVID-19. Since August, 79 people have died

Vermont new COVID-19 cases (Vermont Department of Health

These developments have prompted new calls for a return to the mask mandate. Scott has said the data doesn’t support new restrictions. though he’s been firm in recommending masks in crowded indoor settings. On Tuesday, he added that a mandate may not be as effective at this point in the pandemic as it was last year.

“If you’re unvaccinated and you’re indoors, you should be wearing a mask,” Scott said. “Now, I don’t think my saying that or us mandating that is going to get one single person to wear a mask that doesn’t want to wear a mask. The enforcement is the challenge, compliance is the challenge.”

With a reopened economy that Vermont is reaping the benefits of during peak fall tourism season, it seems doubtful that the current level of cases, hospitalizations and deaths will move the needle on mandates.

“The economy is still moving, we’re managing the cases and hospitalizations, and we’re just going to have to watch the trends,” Scott said.

“If we had a total lockdown, we would prevent deaths. There’s absolutely no question,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine. “I do think a total lockdown for much of the population, never mind Vermont but anywhere in the country, would be intolerable for many.”

As it is, some Vermont parents have been growing restless over contact tracing protocols in schools. Unfortunately, Scott and Education Secretary Dan French said, staff members have become a target of that frustration.

“One nurse told me it’s not why they signed up to be a nurse, to be arguing with parents about the need to comply,” French said.

Monthly COVID-19 deaths in Vermont (Vermont Department of Health)

“I want to remind everyone that they’re just doing their jobs, under very difficult circumstances and conditions,” Scott said. “Please remember – this is not easy for anyone.”

French said he’s spent this past week working with school districts and the School Nurses’ Association on some of the staffing challenges posed by the new testing system in schools. He said while there’s still no easy solution, he’s hoping the Agency of Education can help take some of the pressures of contact tracing off school staff so there’s more time for testing.