Updated at 7:06 p.m.

The Vermont Department of Health will no longer recommend public indoor masking for all Vermonters as of March 14, officials said at a press conference Thursday.

“As our statewide hospitalization rate is low, and hospitals are no longer facing the Covid-related strains of the recent surge, we’re ready to plan for the next step,” state epidemiologist Dr. Patsy Kelso said.

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That includes abandoning mask guidance in all K-12 schools, an expansion of the Feb. 28 guidance that said schools should drop mandates if 80% or more of their students were vaccinated against Covid-19, Education Secretary Dan French said.

The loosening guidance applies to all Vermonters, but Kelso said “the decision to wear masks will be up to each person based on their own circumstances.”

Ben Truman, a spokesperson for the health department, said via email that people at higher risk may want to take additional precautions, such as wearing a mask or having rapid Covid tests on hand. “These are not separate recommendations, but decisions that are up to the individual,” he wrote.

Kelso did not specify whether the new masking guidance would apply to congregate settings such as long-term care facilities. Truman said more details will be released in the coming days.

Masks have been required in schools since the start of the school year in fall 2021, and the state began recommending masks in public spaces amid rising Covid cases in November.

Gov. Phil Scott’s announcement in February that highly vaccinated schools could unmask was met with mixed reactions. Some experts cautioned that research didn’t back claims that unmasking was safe, but some schools have welcomed the chance to roll back restrictions, already ending mask mandates even if they hadn’t met the 80% threshold.

On Wednesday, Montpelier High School students protested the decision, saying they wanted mask mandates to protect themselves and high-risk members of their households.

In response, Scott said on Thursday, “they should wear a mask.”

“There should be no stigma surrounding them, and we should be accepting of people who want to wear masks,” he said. He said masks protect the wearer as well as others, although experts agree masks are most protective when universally used.

The state’s decision is also somewhat at odds with newly released guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC created a new rating system for the risk of virus transmission at a county level, using hospitalization and hospital capacity along with infection rates.

Using that system, 12 Vermont counties are at “low” or “medium” risk, but Bennington and Rutland counties remained at “high” risk on Thursday evening, meaning the CDC recommends that Covid mitigation measures such as masking remain in place. But Kelso said the state wanted to take a more “consistent” approach.

“We’re going to look at this holistically — the entire state of Vermont, instead of by county, because we’re so intertwined with everyone else,” Scott said. “There are folks from rural parts of the states who have to drive into a heavily populated region, that work in those areas, and socialize in those areas, or shop in those areas. We’re moving around a lot.”

Kelso added that, with Covid case counts declining, she expected high-risk counties to move out of that range in the coming weeks. (Already on Thursday, Addison, Orange and Washington moved from “high-risk” to “medium-risk” over the course of the day.)

She said the department would also simplify its isolation and quarantine guidance. Close contacts, even those who are not up to date on their vaccines, no longer need to automatically isolate for five days after exposure to Covid, but should still get tested.

Anyone who develops Covid symptoms should also get tested, she said. Vermonters who test positive should stay home and isolate themselves for five days.

She urged Vermonters to stay up to date on their vaccinations, and to consult the list of high-risk conditions and discuss with their providers if they match that list.

Scott said he had not yet had a chance to review President Joe Biden’s “test-to-treat” plan, which would provide antiviral pills at pharmacies, along with Covid testing.

“Having the ability for individuals to get the antiviral treatment that they need in a quick fashion makes sense to me,” he said, but he would want health care professionals to weigh in on it. “They will know much more about it than I do,” he said.

The health department reported 177 new Covid cases on Thursday, for a seven-day average of 158 cases per day. That’s down from 198 cases per day last week.

As of Thursday, 32 people were hospitalized with the virus, including four in intensive care. The department also reported two more deaths. In total, 604 people have died of Covid since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.

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