BENNINGTON — The recent number of COVID-19 cases in Bennington County remained the second-highest in the state early this week, and local and state health officials are concerned about the amount of virus in the community as a new, more contagious variant of the virus has been discovered close by in New York State.
As of Tuesday, the state Department of Health reported Bennington County had 156 cases in the past 14 days, with another 155 in Windham County over the same time period. Together the two southern counties have 21.7 percent of the state’s 1,419 cases over the past 14 days.
The growth in Bennington County over the past two months has been dramatic. As of Nov. 11, the county reported 17 cases over 14 days; as of Dec. 4 it was 47 cases in 14 days.
In a meeting with Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine on Monday, state Sen. Brian Campion said Levine told him it appears people are being exposed to the virus in the community, and then unwittingly spreading it in group situations.
“Yes, we have outbreaks at the Vermont Veterans’ Home, at the Bennington Police Department. These aren’t causing [virus spread],” Levine explained, according to Campion. “The widespread virus in the community is causing those outbreaks. People need to know this virus is widespread in Bennington County.”
Concern over the growth of those cases, and outbreaks within the Bennington Police Department and the Vermont Veterans’ Home, led Campion and state Sen. Dick Sears to seek a meeting with Levine and Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith on Monday.
That was before New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that a variant of the coronavirus, first observed in the United Kingdom and believed to be more easily spread than COVID-19, had been detected in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Tuesday, at the state’s twice-weekly COVID-19 briefing, Levine said the variant spreads more easily, but there’s no currently no evidence that its symptoms are more serious.
“Should it increase in prevalence, it will mean we will have to redouble our efforts” on vaccination, Levine said.
“The new variant being discovered in Saratoga is a real concern ... it’s only a matter of time” before it appears in Bennington County, Sears said. “A third of our workforce is from New York state. There’s a real dynamic here of people living under different rules, people coming from other hotspots, working or shopping in Bennington or Manchester on a daily basis.”
In the Northshire, which is closer to the Saratoga Springs area, Manchester Town Manager John O’Keefe said the holiday vacation shopping season was fairly brisk with out-of-town visitors, which concerned him and deputy health officer Dr. Thomas Sterling.
But two things are working in the town’s favor, O’Keefe said: That shopping season is entering into its post-holiday lull, and local schools took an extra week before resuming in-person classes.
“It is concerning,” O’Keefe said. “The initial virus was already contagious enough.”
The state’s vaccination program was an overarching theme of Tuesday’s briefing, and remains a significant concern for Sears.
Levine, Smith and Gov. Phil Scott said Tuesday that Vermont is performing well in comparison to other states, and asked for patience as the state works with a limited supply from the federal government, and of late, shipments that have been less than what the state was initially pledged.
Tuesday during the state briefing, officials were asked about the speed and efficiency of the rollout, whether police and firefighters would be getting doses once front-line medical workers and long term care residents are vaccinated, and whether the state has a plan to assure that Black, indigenous and people of color will be prioritized for receiving the vaccine.
“A lot of people are concerned about the slow rollout of vaccination,” Sears said Tuesday. “At the same time we’re seeing an increase in the virus.”
“It’s incumbent upon the legislature as soon as we get back” to examine the vaccination effort, Sears said, adding that the state Senate’s Health and Welfare and Human Services committees may get involved to “make sure it’s done equitably.”
Meanwhile, Campion and Sears want the community to know that as cases continue to rise, residents should be doubling down on the basics of prevention: wearing masks, washing their hands, staying home when sick, and avoiding contact with large gatherings.
Campion said he trusts Levine and his work, but added the Legislature may have a role to play as it allocates the new federal aid package, which includes funds for testing, vaccinations and contact tracing. He also has questions about how the state will determine which underlying medical condition will move people forward in line for a vaccine — citing the example of a 25-year-old who has a compromised immune system due to cancer treatments.
Sears and Campion said they came away from the meeting satisfied that Levine and Smith recognize the case numbers in Southern Vermont are concerning, and that the situation has their attention.
“I think people are trying to do their best,” Sears said. “There is a level of frustration when they hear the vaccine is here and they’re not getting it.”