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As college students return, Vt. health officials say they’re prepared for the influx

Published: 8/22/2020 7:08:47 PM
Modified: 8/22/2020 7:08:45 PM

The number of new cases of COVID in Vermont last week was the largest since mid-June, but several state officials said Friday they aren’t worried about the influx.

With college students returning and the number of tests at an all-time peak, the rise in cases is expected, said Mike Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, which tracks the state’s numbers.

“We did have a considerable number of college students arrive,” he said. “But we still have the lowest positivity rate in the country.”

In fact, Vermont’s model predicts the increase to continue in the coming weeks as more college students from all around the country arrive. Department of Health Commissioner Mark Levine said many students are not coming from “green” areas of the country, meaning they pose a potential risk during their first weeks in Vermont.

Once they’ve been here a while, he said, they shouldn’t contribute more to cases than the rest of the population, “except for their ability to adhere to general guidelines” on social distancing and mask wearing, he said.

The White House has taken notice of Vermont’s potential for college-related outbreaks, according to a recent report from the Coronavirus Task Force uncovered by the Center for Public Integrity.

The report notes Vermont’s rising cases, but the task force places the state in the “green zone” because of its low COVID test positivity rates and low number of deaths. The report says Gov. Phil Scott’s directive allowing cities and towns to limit bar hours is commendable.

The White House recommends that Vermont help communities with outreach to restaurants and bars to help them enforce the state’s occupancy limits and mask mandate.

Despite the reassurances of officials, it’s unclear how much Vermonters will know about college cases and outbreaks as they happen. Right now, colleges notify the public about testing and positive cases through a patchwork of university websites, making it hard to draw broad conclusions about the risk college students pose on the whole.

For example, the University of Vermont’s data, released on a weekly basis, only shows positive cases and does not yet include total tests for off-campus students. The data also doesn’t show the aggregate case total (so far, nine cases have been found among students, faculty and staff).

Levine said the colleges are not all using the same testing platforms and vendors, making it hard to standardize figures. But he said even students from out of state should be reflected in the general case total. However, if students are tested before they come to Vermont, the health department would not be able to include them in the state total.

Any COVID positive college student should get a call from a contact tracer within 24 hours of their test result, he said. He believes colleges will get back to the Department of Health quickly so they can work together to quell outbreaks.

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