MONTPELIER — Public health officials and Gov. Phil Scott are warning Vermonters to remain vigilant and overcome “COVID fatigue,” citing the example of an outbreak that quickly spread from a two cases connected to a hockey rink to 87 cases in 18 towns across four counties.
A few moments of lapsed adherence to the pandemic protocols, including lapses in wearing masks and failure to comply with quarantines, led to the outbreak, which fueled a second outbreak at St. Michael’s College, state epidemiologist Pasty Kelso and Commissioner of Financial Regulation Mike Pieciak said Friday.
“It seems as though we’re getting to a point after eight months that more people are willing to take more risks. I get it. I really do. But we must stay vigilant,” Scott said.
He also understands that Vermonters may have become complacent after months of relative success.
“If we want to keep schools and our economy open, we need to double down on our efforts to contain this virus,” Scott said. Vermonters have done it before, he said, and he’s confident they can do it again, by keeping six feet apart from each other, frequently washing hands, wearing masks, and staying home when they feel sick.
Public health commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said his counterparts in other northeast states are considering bringing back earlier restrictions to prevent a “second wave” of the virus and keep schools and child care centers open. Vermont is not considering such a move, he said. But the state must be vigilant, especially when it comes to holiday gatherings and college students coming home for winter break.
“I know we are tired. There’s a lot of uncertainty right now and I know how hard that is too,” Levine said. “But the virus is making a dangerous comeback.”
Kelso and Pieciak, during Friday’s COVID-19 briefing, said contact tracers studying the outbreak starting at Central Vermont Memorial Civic Center talked to 473 total contacts as they followed the virus’ path.
What they found, Kelso said, was that people involved were following protocol on group size, but were gathering indoors as well as outdoors, “and at times people were not wearing masks. It’s really important to do that,” she said.
Others did not strictly follow quarantine, including those identified as having had close contact with an infected person and those who traveled outside the state.
“The most important takeaway is we all have a role to play,” Kelso said.
The growth of the outbreak beyond central Vermont, coupled with the growth of cases regionally and nationally, has Scott and state public health leaders concerned that a combination of colder weather bringing people inside, along with “COVID fatigue” from months of following the rules.
“Like much of region and country we are seeing cases grow,” Scott said. While the state still has among the lowest hospitalization rates in the country, the most recent statistical models suggest the state will see 50 cases a day by mid-November.
Scott opened his remarks with a remembrance of Travis Roy, the former Boston University hockey player who was paralyzed from the neck down just 11 seconds into his first shift as a freshman. Roy died Thursday, and Scott explained that he had met Roy last summer at an event in Burlington. The Roy family has Vermont connections through his father, who, like Scott, graduated from the University of Vermont and has raced stock cars in New England.
“Travis spent every moment since ensuring those 11 seconds defined an opportunity,” Scott said. “He changed the way the sport is taught. ... he shared his story and found his purpose in helping others find theirs. “
Scott noted that Roy had said “There are times when we chose our challenges and other times our challenges choose us. It’s what we do in the face of those challenges that define who we are.”
“Those words mean more to me than ever,” Scott said. “I am saddened to lose one of my heroes.”
In other topics discussed during the two-hour briefing, Scott said the state’s Agency of Digital Services is working with the University of Vermont Health System to restore its information technology systems after a cyberattack hit the computer networks of six UVM Health System-affiliated hospitals. The FBI is investigating the breach, which follows similar attacks on hospital IT systems across the country. Scott said there was no known impact on the state’s IT systems as a result.
Scott also took several questions on reports of civilian “militia” training taking place at the Slate Ridge center in West Pawlet. It markets itself as a training center for “professional gunfighters.”
Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling said Slate Ridge has “been on the radar” of state law enforcement officials from before he joined the administration in 2019, and that the Department of Public Safety has taken “multiple reports” on activities involving the property and its neighbors. Nothing has risen to the level of meriting criminal charges, Schirling said. He said he could not answer when asked if federal investigators are aware of the situation
Pressed on the matter, Scott noted Schirling’s answers and said “that’s not doing nothing. If it doesn’t rise to the level of criminal what do you suppose we should do?”
“We are very sensitive to concerns of neighbors and folks and we remain responsive, Scott said. “We take all repots of threats and harassment very seriously.”