Vt. notes community transmission of virus; Sullivan County cases exceed travel restrictions

  • Using raw data from Johns Hopkins University, a map generated on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, reflects stipulations from the state of Vermont regarding travel restrictions. Visitors from green counties may travel to the state without quarantining, while those from yellow or red counties are subject to travel restrictions. Grafton and Sullivan Counties in New Hampshire are amongst the counties with a yellow designation, having 400-799 active cases per million. (Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development )

Published: 10/27/2020 9:58:42 PM
Modified: 10/27/2020 9:58:40 PM

MONTPELIER — Vermont’s COVID-19 outbreaks have spread past single cases to broader community transmission, contributing to some of the highest case totals the state has had since spring, officials said at a press conference Tuesday.

An outbreak that began at an ice rink in Montpelier has now infected 57 people, many of whom had little to no contact with the initial hockey and broomball teams that were affected, said Dr. Mark Levine, head of the state Department of Health.

“What we’ve been experiencing recently are different outbreaks among relatively unrelated groups and individuals, spreading from the original cases, to their contact, and contacts of those contacts, crossing situations and geographic regions of the state,” he said.

Vermont also updated its travel map of surrounding states, and every bordering county in New Hampshire and Massachusetts is now either yellow or red, which both require a quarantine for nonessential travel to and from Vermont. Sullivan County rose into the yellow category, meaning Vermont calculates it has more than 400 COVID-19 cases per million, including a multiplier for cases that may be currently asymptomatic.

Meanwhile, New Hampshire authorities on Tuesday reported 140 new positive test results for COVID-19, including 10 new ones in Grafton County and 1 in Sullivan County.

The Montpelier ice rink outbreak and several others led to one of Vermont’s highest weekly COVID-19 totals since the start of the pandemic in mid-March. The state announced 29 cases today, bringing the total to 2,113.

Gov. Phil Scott said the ice-rink outbreak may have begun with out-of-state travel. The state has now published new recreational sports guidelines that restrict Vermont teams to play games only against other Vermont teams.

Scott reminded Vermonters to obey the state’s travel laws and to be careful with social plans for Halloween this Saturday.

“We need everyone to be smart about any gatherings,” he said. “Before you go, ask yourself: Will people be wearing masks? Is there enough room to spread out? Has everyone been following the travel guide? If the answer to any of these questions is no, you should consider skipping it.”

The outbreak stemming from Central Vermont Memorial Civic Center in Montpelier was not connected to actually playing hockey or broomball, but more to the activities associated with sports, such as team activities and carpooling, Levine said.

The 17 primary infectious people then passed the disease along to other people, who gave it to other people — some of whom were already in quarantine, he said.

Small social gatherings, at which people take off their masks to eat or drink, are among factors driving the spread of the virus, he said.

Levine expressed concern about the impact on students. Union Elementary School in Montpelier has reported six cases of COVID-19 related to the hockey outbreak (plus one unrelated case), the first school with person-to-person transmission within a school.

“While it is the adults more than the children who have been the cases, numerous students still have had to be quarantined, or had to have their classes go remote,” Levine said.

The forecast: A continuing rise in cases

Vermont’s latest model for the coming weeks shows that Vermont could have 50 to 60 cases a day by the end of November, according to a presentation by Mike Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation.

But that forecast is not a “foregone conclusion,” Pieciak said. Whether the prediction becomes reality depends on Vermonters’ actions and the precautions they take.

“This has happened numerous times in the past where case growth has gone up, our forecasts have gone up, and Vermonters have responded” in ways that brought the outbreak back under control, he said.

Vermont has a history of outperforming its own models. Officials warned that the number of cases and hospitalizations could exceed the state’s capacity for treatment in early April, but the state wound up with fewer cases than even its own best-case scenario.

But it’s also worth noting that other states that managed to curb the first wave of the pandemic later had case numbers that rose far past that first wave. Hawaii’s first wave in April topped out at 24 cases per day, then a second wave in August peaked at 309 cases per day.

Pieciak pointed to two metrics where Vermont is doing better than the rest of the nation: its low positivity testing rate and its low hospitalizations.

Four people in Vermont are currently hospitalized for the virus, and its positivity rate is lower than the national average, suggesting that enough Vermonters are being tested relative to the number of cases it has.

Bad signs are starting to show up in one of Vermont’s reopening metrics: The case growth rate, measured by how new cases rise day by day. The state’s growth rate has gone up in the past week, Pieciak said.

“We’re not seeing the kind of sustained growth rate that would give us concern,” he said. “But it is different now than it’s been pretty much at any other point during the pandemic, but for early on in that first peak and then Winooski rose.”

Cases are also continuing to rise in nearby states. The case totals in the Northeast have risen 21% since last week, the model shows. Fewer people than ever are able to travel to Vermont under the state’s travel map without restrictions.

That fact should be reflected in Vermonters’ holiday plans, Levine said.

“If Thanksgiving and Christmas don’t look different this year, then perhaps we’re not approaching them correctly,” Levine said. “Because everything we do in our lives this year has looked different in our attempt to keep everything as safe as possible.”

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