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Vermont sees spike in COVID-19 cases

VERMONT HEALTH COMMISSIONER Dr. Mark Levine singled out Victory Baptist Church in Vergennes last Friday as the source of 80 recent COVID-19 cases linked to Christmas services. On Tuesday he said the number was approaching 100 cases.

ADDISON COUNTY  — Along with the rest of Vermont, Addison County is caught up in a surge of COVID-19 cases stemming from an increase in a spread of the disease related to people getting together over the Christmas holidays.
The Vermont Department of Health reported double-digit daily increases in the number of Addison County cases over the last two weeks, with 218 new cases here since Dec. 30 — nearly half of the 474 confirmed county cases since the pandemic began last March.
Statewide the numbers were equally alarming, with the 118 new cases on Wednesday alone, and more than 9,000 since mid-March.
“To put the recent case growth in perspective, imagine that over the last five days we have seen more cases in Vermont than we saw from March through September,” said Michael Pieciak, the commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, at Gov. Phil Scott’s weekly press conference on Tuesday.
Pieciak, whose agency runs the models that forecast growth of the disease caused by the coronavirus, predicted that COVID-19 cases could continue to surge into February, with some days seeing more than 300 new cases statewide.
Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine called it the “Christmas effect.” After he singled out Victory Baptist Church in Vergennes last Friday as the source of 80 recent COVID-19 cases linked to Christmas services, on Tuesday he said the number was approaching 100 cases.
The Rev. Tim Taylor, pastor at Victory Baptist Church on Route 7, and others at the church were somewhat surprised by the outbreak in their community. Taylor said his parishioners were following federal safety guidelines during the spread of the disease that apparently occurred at Christmas services.
“Our congregations want to do live services, so we follow CDC guidelines,” Taylor told the Independent.
Jennie Dobson, a member of the Victory Baptist congregation, told the Independent that people in her church wear masks, and they understand the danger of the coronavirus and truly take precautions to keep each other and the public at large safe.
“We don’t want it to spread; we want it to end,” said Dobson, an Addison resident and preK and kindergarten teacher at Champlain Valley Christian Academy in Vergennes. (See Dobson’s letter to the editor)
Dobson’s school has been doing virtual meetings since Christmas, when she and a few other teachers got COVID-19. She says it is “most likely” that she got the disease at church.
Pastor Taylor and his wife also got COVD-19.
During the start of the pandemic Victory Baptist held services only online in March, April and May, in accordance with state mandates, Taylor said. But as the rules for group gatherings eased over the summer, he said Victory Baptist resumed in-person services with the requisite sanitizer station, face masks and leaving every other pew open.
“This is the first outbreak we’ve had since the pandemic started last March,” Taylor said.
Victory Baptist has not had a live, in-person service since Dec. 27 — the day that Pastor Taylor recognized COVID-19 symptoms in himself.
He said that religious people generally want to go to church at Christmas because of the significance of the holiday to their faith, and “everyone was being careful,” he emphasized. Plus he noted that people generally want to get together with others more during the holidays even outside church.
“You have a little bit of church and a lot of social during the holidays,” Taylor said.
In a Friday news conference, Levine said that on Christmas weekend Victory Baptist held three separate services “where a number of households were gathered. Indeed we have seen a lot of transmissions within those households and across people who attended that church.”
He said he was not aware that any capacity limits were exceeded at the church, “but I can’t definitively say that.”
Levine called 80 a lot of cases, but he cautioned that it was not a “major proportion” of the number of cases that are being reported in Vermont.
The Department of Health on Wednesday reported around 1,900 new cases of COVID-19 in the past 14 days, so 100 cases stemming from Victory Baptist amounts to around 5% of all the cases in the state over that period.
 “It’s fair to say that a lot of the impact of what we’ve seen is the impact of the holidays,” Levine said.
Possibly demonstrating how the spread of COVID-19 cases can rapidly spread, Taylor said he had heard of “well over a dozen” cases related to Victory Baptist, but also noted that he personally knew of more than 70 cases.
“All of it was tied to that (surge),” he said.
Taylor said people wanted to gather in-person with fellow believers, that it is critical to their spiritual well-being. He referred to the in-the-flesh experience as “corporate” worship.
“Corporate worship is part of the Christian faith,” he said. “There is something lost in a Zoom service. We did it for three months.”
Dobson said she would rather worship in person. In her letter she said, “For me, (worship online) is not worship. For me, worship is fellowship with others. For me, worship is singing and playing piano. For me, worship is joining together with others of a like mind and studying God’s Word.
She did urge those who felt in danger — the elderly and those who are immune compromised — to worship at home.
“I do understand that it could get you sick,” Dobson told the Independent. “My sister is a nurse, I absolutely understand that.”
The outbreak among the Victory Baptist congregation started just before Christmas, Taylor said, marking the start at Dec. 18. Then there were Christmas services on Friday, Dec. 25, and another service on that Sunday morning, Dec. 27. That afternoon, Pastor Taylor said, he started feeling sick, with symptoms including a sore throat. He canceled services scheduled for that night, and the church hasn’t had an in-person service since then.
Taylor said he tested positive for COVID-19 and got very sick. He experienced loss of taste and smell, coughing, sore throat, muscle aches and fever.
“This has definitely not been fun,” Taylor said.
Taylor’s wife, Sandy, who he said has lung disease, also got COVID-19, and he said she suffered more than he did. Pastor Taylor had to take his wife to UVM Medical Center twice. He drove her to Burlington despite the fact he was in bad shape himself, because they didn’t want to put her sick into a car with a healthy person. He would drop her off at a special hospital entrance for COVID-19 patients and wait for her in the car while she was attended to in the hospital.
Taylor himself stayed in quarantine for 10 days after the onset of symptoms, and returned to work in the church office on Jan. 7. On Jan. 8 in a phone interview from his office at the Route 7 church he said he still felt some lingering effects of the disease, including a very slight cough, residual weakness and a little shortness of breath.
He urged anyone who feels sick to call their doctor and get it checked out.
“People have been lulled; we’ve gone a long time since last March with no outbreaks until now,” Taylor said. “It’s everywhere now.”
While texting with the pastor of another church, Taylor said the other minister said that “every service he holds his breath” in fear that an outbreak could start.
“Our congregations want to do live services, so we follow CDC guidelines,” Taylor said.
But Victory Baptist will not be doing in-person services until they are past the current spike in COVID-19 cases, he said.
“Lord willing we’ll see Addison County turn a corner soon,” he said. “We will live-stream services… We’re going to wait for the spike to go down before we do in-person services again.”
Dr. Levine bemoaned the fact that he has to keeping giving the same advice to Vermonters that he has throughout the pandemic — wear a mask, keep six-feet from others, avoid traveling and stay home when you feel sick.
“In this post-holiday time we are seeing more cases and Vermonters need to not let their guard down and continue following all the guidelines,” Levine said.
Taylor reiterated the idea that people need to take precautions, while urging his neighbors in Addison County and beyond to be prepared to take steps if they get sick.
“No matter what you do, COVID can find you,” Taylor said.

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