Vermont battles COVID-19 surge

Vermont reported 23 new cases of COVID Monday, after weekend tallies reached a high not seen since the start of the pandemic nearly eight months ago.
The state had 43 cases on Sunday, the highest single-day tally since April 9, according to the Department of Health’s data portal (there was one case reported in Addison County on Sunday). While today’s case total is lower, it remains part of a rise in cases that began this fall from the Montpelier ice rink outbreak.
That outbreak now tops 112 cases, and its effects have reached multiple K-12 schools and caused 30 cases at St. Michael’s College. Chittenden County and Washington County now have the highest 14-day case totals in the state.
How does this surge in cases compare to April, when the state had multiple major outbreaks and most of its 59 deaths? Here’s a look:
The Bad News
Not only has Vermont seen several days of record levels of cases in the past few weeks, there’s early evidence that rise in cases is sustained — and may continue to go up.
The number of new cases per day has been in the 20-30 range for the past week, compared to a low of 5-10 cases per day over the summer, according to Vermont Department of Health data.
The “case growth rate” — new cases as a percentage of total cases in a population — is approaching the rate of rise during the Winooski outbreak, according to Department of Health data. That shows that cases are spreading throughout the state at a fast pace, rather than just remaining at the same level.
Case growth is one of the state’s “reopening” metrics, one way that officials look at the numbers to decide on whether to continue to keep businesses, schools and other organizations open.
The governor hasn’t taken any action to limit COVID restrictions further as of yet. So far, the state has emphasized the importance of Vermonters following masking and social distancing orders.
Officials have said the number of close contacts for positive cases has risen as people have left their homes more and held more events indoors.
“I get it. I really do,” Gov. Phil Scott said at a press conference on Oct. 30. “But we must stay vigilant.”
Another reopening metric that’s worrying is the test positivity rate. For months, Vermont had maintained its reputation for having the lowest test positivity rate in the nation, but the numbers have crept up in recent weeks.
Vermont has cited a 5% test positivity rate over seven days as the standard in its reopening metrics plan. While it hasn’t hit that point in its seven-day average, a handful of the past days have reached that point using a one-day rate.
The nation’s rising COVID case level — with more than 100,000 cases a day in the past week — doesn’t factor into Vermont’s reopening metrics. But it does have an effect on who can travel to the state, and how.
Only residents of six counties are allowed to travel to Vermont without quarantining, according to the state’s travel map: Four in Maine and one each in Pennsylvania and New York.
While that travel map keeps out a record number of out-of-staters, business owners and everyday Vermonters have raised concerns about how many people are complying with its restrictions. The state does not track whether people are following the rules.
The state also has some early signs of rising complications from COVID. Eight people are currently hospitalized for the virus, one of the highest numbers since the spring.
The Good News
Even as Vermont’s rate rises, there are some reasons to step back and take a breather. If you’re a Vermonter worrying about the state’s rising case levels, it might be good to remember you’re still in the most successful state in the nation in terms of its COVID rate and response.
The White House Coronavirus Task Force still ranks Vermont lowest in its COVID rate, according to reports obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
Vermont has a long way to go before it passes the exponential case growth it reached in the spring. Comparing Vermont’s rising case growth to its April levels makes it look much more in control.
Vermont’s more prepared, too. The Department of Health is testing far more and has created a testing and tracing strategy. The state has acquired more personal protective equipment and ventilators for its reserve. The state imposed a mask mandate and Vermonters have had months of practice in social distancing.
At a press conference Oct. 30, Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of the health department, said the multiple outbreaks should be a call to action for Vermonters to follow the state’s restrictions.
“We are seeing cases go up here in Vermont,” he said. “But there’s still time to double down on our prevention efforts. And we can still be proud of what we’ve done and what we still have left to do.”

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