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One year later: Community reflects on living with COVID

STUDENTS IN THE Medical Professions program at the Hannaford Career Center may have been used to masks and PPE, such as this trio sighted near the end of last year, but for many people the imposition of serious measures to stop disease transmission was something they didn’t experience until coronavirus arrive.

ADDISON COUNTY — It’s been a year; it’s been a long year.
As the seriousness of the impending emergency became obvious, the front of our March 12, 2020, edition featured a banner all the way across the top saying “Coronavirus Watch.” It featured stories on how Porter Hospital and county schools were prepping for COVID-19. Middlebury College sent its students home and readied for online classes.
The following Monday, back when we had a Monday edition, we looked at how elder care facilities were tightening up, Porter was limiting visitors, and milk prices were plummeting as transportation bottlenecks or lower demand or something was throwing the market into a tailspin.
On March 18, 2020 — one year ago today — Porter Hospital announced the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Addison County. The patient was screened via telemedicine, tested via the new drive through testing facility in the Porter parking lot, and sent home to self-isolate per CDC guidelines.
By March 19, 2020, the front of the Addison Independent was all COVID-19. Businesses were feeling the impact, the state was gearing up to provide financial and medical relief, social service providers were asking how to continue reaching out to the vulnerable, Porter had set up that outdoor COVID testing facility with doctors swathed head to toe in personal protective equipment. Like many business, the Addy Indy closed its offices and we all worked from home.
To say it was a hassle is an understatement. You all know.
To say it was disconcerting is an understatement. It was scary.
It’s been a year. Addison County has logged 867 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the Vermont Department of Health. Middlebury has had the most cases — 131 cases — followed by our other big towns: Vergennes 118, Ferrisburgh 89, Bristol 88, and Shoreham 62 (not a big town, but the site of 30 cases in an outbreak among fruit pickers).
Four Addison County communities haven’t reported any cases — Goshen, Granville, Ripton and Waltham.
The age group that has seen the most cases here is 20-29-year-olds, who have experienced 170 infections, according to the Department of Health COVID Dashboard. But for those in their 60s, 70s and older, the combined total is 188 cases. We have seen 55 cases among children younger than 10.
Cases in Vermont are split about 50-50 between women and men. The state is about 94% white, but whites account for 87.8% of the coronavirus cases here.
Of the people who get COVID-19 in Vermont, about 1.3% die of the disease. Of the 217 Vermonters who have died of the disease, 86% have been age 70 or older.
The state reports that 18,025 residents of Addison County have been tested for COVID-19 — just shy of half the population. Middlebury College last summer instituted an on-campus testing program that has administered more than 24,000 COVID-19 tests. Since Jan. 16, 2021, Middlebury has conducted 14,948 COVID tests with 11 positive results.
One number on the tally sheet stands out.
As of Wednesday, 26.8% of Addison County residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
A year into this pandemic we wanted to take stock. We asked people to write a short response to the prompt: “The pandemic has changed my life by …” What follows is some of what your neighbors had to say about their experience in the past year:
 

By Patrick Fitzsimmons, musician, Bristol
Besides not seeing friends and family, the most significant way the pandemic has changed my life is with regards to playing music. I haven’t had any gigs, outside of my living room, in over a year. Everything has been online, mostly Facebook Live concerts. At first I did monthly full-length concerts featuring my own songs through the spring, summer and fall of 2020. Then in December I started a live weekly series called “Cover Tune Tuesday,” where I’d pick a theme, e.g. “Gone But Not Forgotten: Songs by songwriters we lost in 2020,” or “You’ve Got a Friend: Songs of support and encouragement,” and perform between six and 10 cover songs in the theme. I didn’t actually know that many cover songs before I undertook this project so there was a great deal of homework for me each week. Overall, though, it was a real blessing by keeping me focused in the work of putting these shows together during what would have otherwise been a very long, slow and musically deprived winter.
“Cover Tune Tuesday” lasted up until March 9, when I did the “season finale.” I might pick it back up at some point.
The strangest part of these shows was the complete lack of audible audience reaction after each song. With Facebook Live, unlike a Zoom call, the audience can see and hear me but I can’t see or hear them. Deep within a performer’s bones we equate audience silence to failure! So that was a tough one to overcome. People are able, and often do, type comments or send up hearts or smiles or other supportive (hopefully) emojis to let you know they are out there, engaged and enjoying it.
It certainly doesn’t take the place of some nice strong clapping or the ever welcome woo! or yeah! but it definitely helps to keep you going. Eventually I did start having a lot of fun with the shows. The bottom line is, connection is good even if it’s not your preferred mode of connecting. I feel it was completely worth overcoming the awkwardness and learning curve of this new form of gigging to be able to keep connected with folks musically, for myself as well as, according to all the floating hearts, thumbs up and smiley faces, the audience.
 

By Doug Wilhelm, Weybridge
I’m not sure how I’ve changed — aren’t we the last to see it in ourselves? — but this question has me thinking about a cocoon. This year we’ve each been living inside a sort of cocoon, which is more or less opaque: Some of us have hardly left the house, while others have to deal with people every day. When we do go out we carry our cocoon around, in our masks and our distancing. Soon we’ll be able to leave it behind. How will we be different? How am I different already?
I like to think that having spent this time in my cocoon I’ll be more reflective, more comfortable in myself, less impelled to do the usual staying busy and distracting. That may be wishful thinking, though I hope it’s true. I know I’ll appreciate other people more, and I hope I will show that. I will surely be grateful to see people’s smiles.
After the Independent put me on top of page one last May with a feature story headlined “Weybridge man recovers from COVID-19,” I was worried how people might react. Next time I had to go into the hardware store or the food co-op, would people back away, even ask me to leave? But instead, for weeks after the article came out, it seemed like everywhere I went in Middlebury someone would ask, “How are you feeling?” “Are you OK now?” It even happened the other day. Did I have any long-term effects?
Happily, I don’t — and from this experience, I learned something about this community. Even within our little cocoons, we’ve done our best to take care of each other. I know I will remember that. I hope it leaves me changed for the better
 

By Chris Anderson, Middlebury
Thank you to the amazing staff at both Rikert and the Snow Bowl (and of course Middlebury College) for providing solace, in the form of skiing, to what seems like roughly 50% of the local population. To witness our youth, teens and young adults flourishing in this positive environment has been a refreshing reminder that there are many things that are still right in this beautiful world.
We are surrounded by a diversity of  natural resources in Addison County, and I hope that over the past year everyone in our community has found a little something outside they can access to refresh the body and mind.
 

By Gerry and Bobbi Loney, Middlebury
The pandemic has changed our life by … increasing our gratitude.
At Christmas, we got a tree small enough to fit through the door decorated, and the grandkids, Callie and Milo Rees, decorated it, as always, but this year outdoors.
Our son and grandson, who live in Albany, Tor and Finn Loney, and I met on the New York /Vermont border, in West Pawlet, and slid our presents back and forth across the state line on a toboggan, following the letter of the advisory not to go out of state.
We always open presents with our daughter and son-in-law, Poppy and JP Rees, and grandkids, Callie, and Milo. This year we did it outside, around a fire, with hot chocolate and Norwegian krumkake.
Then Phil Scott gave us the present of being able to be inside; with one other family, masked, distanced, and with an open window! Yay!
A backyard ice rink helped.
March 12, Bobbi and I marked our two-week second-shot anniversary. After a year, we are able to be together without masks or distancing, and HUG!
So, after having made ourselves feel grateful for what we could have, rather than what we weren’t going to have this Christmas, it turned out to be a wonderful and unforgettable family time.
 

By George Jaeger, Middlebury
What were my main feelings?
Relief and pride! Those were my reactions when the Eastview retirement community, where I live, completed its vaccinations.
Relief because throughout the last year there was a risk that our residents could fall prey to a decimating COVID outbreak, like those that occurred in many other retirement communities.
Pride, because we dodged the bullet because of the meticulous adherence of Eastview management to guidelines, as well as the sustained cooperation of all of our residents and staff.
Now we all have another lease on life. It was, of course, a very lonely and confining period. But it was more than worth it!
Hurrah for survival!
 

By Stacie Marshall, Bristol
The pandemic changed my life on Feb. 9, when I met with a team of eight doctors at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center where they told my aunt and I, and family on the phone, that there was nothing more they could do for my dear, and favorite, Uncle Bob Rorison. He had been placed on a ventilator due to contracting COVID weeks before.
While holding his hand and telling him how much his family and friends love him, it was only a few short hours that he took his last breath. This pandemic has changed my life, significantly.
 

By Dr. Amanda Young, Director of the Porter Medical Center Emergency Department, Middlebury
The pandemic has changed my professional life in powerful ways. The collateral damage from a year of isolation, distancing, and fear has been my motivation for finding all the gifts that were hidden within this healthcare jungle.
The gift of eye contact when masks blocked our smiles. The gift of meaningful patient conversations afforded by personal protective equipment. The gift of a healthcare team that sacrificed so much to show up every day and face uncertainty.
And finally, I will never take for granted the gift of touch — a handshake, a hug, and a hand on the shoulder are sometimes exactly what the doctor ordered, and I will be happy when those are the gifts we can share once again.
 

By Megan James, Middlebury
Honestly the pandemic has changed my life in mostly positive ways. I am lucky to have a fulfilling job I can do from home, and in-person school (thank god). So I have had the privilege to spend this year learning about myself and building healthier habits. I figured out I was an introvert only a couple years ago, so the pandemic has given me the time and space to listen to my own needs. I started a restorative running habit. I discovered that when I’m stuck creatively, all I need to do is take a walk or do a load of laundry or get something started in the slow cooker.
We used to be a family that ran around every day from event to event. Now we know how to enjoy time in our own home. My 6-year-old daughter and I recently started making collages together, and it is the best.
Of course I miss things from the Before Times. I miss acquaintances most of all. All those people I used to see at playgroups and the library and other friends’ parties. The people I would never have a reason to call or Zoom.
But mostly, I am thankful for this unexpected year of reflection. I hope that when the world gets back to normal, I can hold on to the best of it.
 

By Andy Kirkaldy, Middlebury
“How did the pandemic change you?”
Change? I’m too old to change.
Among other things, I like playing sports, well-written mysteries, and good food and wine.
On the flip side, I don’t like working out just to work out, bad grammatical writing (conversationally I’m cool with it, though), and lima beans.
Being cooped up for a year wasn’t going to alter that or other pieces of my worldview.
But I’m not too old to learn, even if I remain stubborn enough not to follow orders, which I will do here by rewriting the prompt:
“What did I learn during a year of a pandemic?”
A sampling:
• I can live without sports. I haven’t kicked, thrown, hit or shot a ball since October, when the governor shut down our pickup soccer game. At age 66, this gave me a preview of my future. I’ll survive, even if it means becoming more obsessed with shuffleboard, cornhole and fantasy baseball.
• Based on the past 12 months it’s safe to say in my retirement I am not going to learn how to play a musical instrument, bake bread, or speak Sanskrit. My taste in TV shows will probably expand, however.
• I am still a pretty good painter. The front entrance, two hallways and staircase (complete with fussy spindles) look pretty damn good, if I do say so myself. The fall on the stairway during that project was a humbling reminder of my mortality, however.
• The toughest part was not seeing our kids and other close family members in southern New England. When we’re both vaccinated, first order of business.
• If my lovely wife Kristine didn’t kick me out in the past year, I think we crazy kids just might make it after all.
 

By Reed Prescott, Lincoln
These are very dangerous times for community as we process a unified experience rarely felt. The crossing of two paths — destructive on their own — have now merged. No, not politics! Cabin fever meets a year of isolation.
I love you all and dream about the new growth about to happen after this dormant period of rest. Although I might currently be like that frustrated seed from a tree I will find my way. Within my shell I have an entire tree waiting to burst out and can’t wait for that time when I crack that shell and emerge. Patience, that time will be here soon and when it happens that world we imagined will be even more beautiful than we dreamed.
This is the time to work on staying connected not division — within your own house, with your friends, community, then beyond.
As life continued during this period we have many pieces to process in unusual ways. Backed into a corner to deal with losses. No way to participate in celebration all with our hands tied on many activities because of a long winter. Our connection to family and friends severed and reaching our hands into the dirt to connect with nature stalled. Benchmark celebrations that fuel our memories not lived.
I would like to apologize to all those close to me but that list is too long. I would like to scream as I watch people very close to me working their life to its conclusion and have few avenues for reaching out a helping hand or to release this tension.
I would love to apologize to those I lash out at because my survival feels threatened. Art shows closed, wholesale markets stalled, and retail markets holding on for their own survival leaves me feeling vulnerable and exposed.
It’s a time to make people laugh and smile. It is a time to reach out to anyone through Zoom. It is a time to join nature. Sugaring season, walks in the woods, anything to balance out life and remove that cornered animal feeling created by this merger.
It’s a time to be careful what you put out on social media, what you feel or say towards friends and family. It’s a time to practice unified experiences not division. Our survival depends on it like no other time in our lives.
Practice patience, swallow pride, stay connected whenever possible, as if that is your job for now. If you are feeling alone reach out to someone for safe FaceTime connection. If you’re bored send a card, text a friend, send an email to let someone know you miss them, knock on a neighbor’s door and converse through that barrier to see how they are doing. Work it … your house and community are counting on you more than ever.
 

By Ruth Hardy, State Senator, East Middlebury
March 13 marked the one-year anniversary of the day the Vermont Legislature closed the Statehouse and the governor declared a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic. March 14 was exactly one year since I wrote my first update to you with information about the pandemic, health and safety protocols, state and community resources, and stories of struggle and hope. Since then I’ve written many more updates to keep my constituents informed during this difficult, often frightening, and confusing year.
I know this past year has been one of loss for so many of us. Many Vermonters have lost family members and friends to COVID directly or indirectly. Many people have lost jobs, opportunities, time with friends and family, or important events, trips, and rites of passage. It’s been an especially difficult year for senior citizens and people with serious illnesses who have faced isolation because of their vulnerability to the virus. Frontline workers have lived with the stress and anxiety of needing to go to work while living in a constant state of unknown risk. Students of all ages have missed time in the classroom, spent hours in front of screens, and given up socializing and growing with friends and peers. Employees at restaurants, hotels, arts organizations, and many other workplaces have lost jobs and the security of a well-earned paycheck. Everyone has lost or missed out on something this year. It has not been easy for anyone.
And yet, our community and state have come together in amazing ways, sharing resources, offering support and gratitude, bringing each other hope and joy, making food and supplies, providing shelter and medical care. We have taken the pandemic seriously and done what we’ve needed to do to protect each other and get through this together. Along the way, we’ve taken note of the lessons we can learn to make our community even stronger and healthier, more inclusive and just, more resilient and sustainable.
There is light at the end of this tunnel. More and more Vermonters are getting vaccinated each week. The days are getting longer; spring and warm weather are coming. We must remain vigilant and safe for a few more months. But by summer, most adults will hopefully be vaccinated and we can slowly, cautiously venture toward a new normal, one where we can enjoy the freedom to gather, travel, and celebrate without forgetting the lessons we have learned and the sacrifices so many have made. (As always, the best source of information about COVID resources and protocols, including vaccines, is the Vermont Department of Health website.)
March 13 was my birthday, so the day the pandemic officially began in Vermont is starkly etched in my head. I turned 50 and the world seemed to fall apart. This past Saturday I celebrated another birthday, and the pandemic continues, but so much has changed. Writing these posts and helping people access assistance and get information has buoyed me through a difficult year. It’s been an honor to be your senator during this time of crisis. Thank you for continuing to put your trust in me.
We can do this together. We can stay safe and recover from the darkness of this pandemic. By the time I turn 52, we will have a brave new world in our brave little state. Let’s make it so. Stay safe and well.

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