Coronavirus impacts being felt in Northshire

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While no cases of the COVID-19 illness had been diagnosed by press time in the Northshire area, the novel Coronavirus has made its first appearance in Vermont in a man from Bennington County.

Local schools, agencies and organizations have put plans into action to help prevent the spread of the virus and some changes have been made.

One thing everybody agrees on is that it's not time to panic, but it's absolutely time to begin practicing good hygiene by washing your hands and taking other precautions as recommended by the CDC and Vermont Department of Health.

The Town of Manchester named Dr. Thomas Sterling, who is Manchester's deputy health officer, to serve as the point person to coordinate the town's effort, said Town Manager John O'Keefe.

"We're taking our guidance from the CDC and the state, but there are things that have come up that they just don't have time to advise us on," O'Keefe said.

Sterling is already putting his expertise to work, holding a training session for town employees, helping to devise a protocol for dispatcher sending police, fire and rescue to scenes and answering employee questions.

O'Keefe said dispatchers have been trained on asking the right questions to give responders the information they need. A recent call had a dispatcher sending Northshire Rescue to a person suffering from an upper respiratory problem. The dispatcher immediately told the crew the patient did have a cough but was not running a fever and had not traveled out of the country.

Sterling also helped the town decide to cancel Manchester teams' participation in a fifth- and sixth-grade basketball tournament in Bennington.

Manchester has worked to ensure the town's Emergency Operations Center was fully functional and ready in case it is needed.

And the town has living quarters for 16 in case police, fire or other town employees need a place to stay if there is a need.

"We hope this will crest out and all of our preparations will all be for nothing," O'Keefe said.

"We are paid to make sure we're prepared for these kinds of things as best we can. I think, from a government perspective, anybody who isn't taking it seriously is foolhardy."

State response

Tracy Dolan, the deputy commissioner of the Department of Health, answered a question about the identity of the person who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

The state and health workers have only identified the patient as a male from Bennington County.

A newspaper has identified the person as a resident of Readsboro through an interview with the man's landlord.

Dolan, however, was not willing to provide any information that might identify him.

"We take privacy laws pretty seriously," Dolan said. "Particularly because Vermont is a small state, it doesn't take much for people to know who the person is. That's a concern for us."

Dolan said she understood the public's desire to know more, and said if there was a public health reason, more information would be released.

"We're always balancing protecting health privacy information with the public need to know," Dolan said.

She said the best thing people can do is follow the CDC guidelines.

"We just encourage everyone to wash their hands, stay home when they're sick," Dolan said. "At this time we're not making any recommendations [about travel] in general, other than elderly folks might want to consider how crowded an event is, and the ventilation."

Dolan said the state is on a path of both containment and mitigation.

"We are seeing that it is more transmissible than the flu and there is a higher fatality rate for older individuals and [those with underlying health issues]."

Dolan said one small advantage is that the extra attention to hygiene is helping to prevent the spread of the flu, which she said is still widespread.

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Seniors

Another thing the town has done is reach out to the three senior living facilities in town to offer any assistance required to keep its residents safe.

One of those locations, Equinox Village, recently canceled a presentation and all further activities that would bring groups of people to the facility.

"Equinox Village is being abundant in precautionary measures to protect our residents," said Kylee Ryan, our wellness and activities director. "That is why we have, for the most part, canceled all activities that bring large groups of outsiders into our building. Those that live here are among the most vulnerable for flu and the coronavirus and we take that seriously."

Ryan said the plan is to keep the virus out of the facility and the current plan is to reassess in two weeks.

In addition to the canceled events, the facility is asking questions of visitors and may not allow visitors if they're potentially in a high-risk category based on travel or illness.

"Our residents' health and well-being is of the utmost importance to us," Ryan said. "We are doing what we can with the information that's being provided by our governor and the Vermont Department of Health and staying abreast of the situation."

Meals on Wheels of Bennington County, which prepares a meal for up to 300 people a day, reduced its home deliveries from five times to once a week. The nonprofit also is administering a questionnaire to diners at its meal sites — Bennington, Arlington and Manchester — to screen for people who might have the coronavirus.

The program serves people older than 60, as well as those living with disabilities, which include the populations considered vulnerable to the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease.

Items on the diner's questionnaire include whether a person has visited a hospital or walk-in clinic in the past two weeks, has symptoms like a fever and trouble breathing, as well as traveled to China, Italy, South Korea, Iran or Japan, countries that have seen the most coronavirus cases worldwide.

"We had to implement some procedures for the prevention of any type of spreading of the virus," said Ilsa Svoboda, executive director of the Meals on Wheels program. The new policies, she said, were implemented upon the advice of the Southwestern Vermont Council on Aging and the state Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living.

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Schools 

Local schools are working currently on analyzing plans and staying vigilant.

At Burr and Burton Academy, the school is watching and ready to change course if there is a need.

Meg Kenny, associate head of school at BBA, said a meeting was planned earlier this week to reevaluate planned travel.

"We have a number of domestic and international trips heading out in the next five or six weeks," Kenny said. "We're taking a hard look at that."

Kenny said there are no current plans to cancel events but that could change.

"We're following the experts and right now the experts are not telling us to do that," Kenny said.

The school is providing sanitizing gel, wipes and tissues, and working in the background on a virtual model of education if it becomes necessary.

"I'm hoping we don't have to go that route," Kenny said. "Today we surveyed all of our students around their internet infrastructure, their cell phone data plans."

Kenny said it was reassuring to learn from Sterling that younger people tend to fair better with the illness, but she's concerned about the depth of interaction BBA students have in the community if someone were to come down with the illness.

Kenny wants the community to know that the school's international students have not traveled since this virus became known.

"I want to reassure people, our international students have not traveled," Kenny said. "They've been here. We're very mindful that their home nations in many cases are really struggling and we're trying to support them."

At Long Trail School in Dorset, the decision to cancel all international travel has already been made.

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In a letter home to families, Head of School Seth Linfield said the school has, until further notice, postponed all student travel to international destination in particular including the exchange program with the sister school in Spain.

"This decision is consistent with the latest guidance from the CDC, which cautions that 'students may face unpredictable circumstances, travel restrictions, challenges in returning home or accessing health care while abroad,'" the letter reads.

"This decision will be a relief to some and disappoint others," Linfield wrote. "Still, this decision is our best judgment for our community's health and safety."

LTS is also watching closely and planning for the potential of the need to close the school or resort to holding classes remotely.

"Our highest priority, now and always, is the health, safety and wellbeing of our students, faculty, visitors and community," the letter reads. "The Response Team is assessing and readying our capacity to teach and learn remotely if we were compelled by the course of the coronavirus to suspend in-person learning on campus."

Business

The business community will feel the impacts of this virus and Paul Carroccio, president of the Manchester Business Association believes the impact to health and the economy needs to be taken seriously.

"My sense is it's going to impact the economy," Carroccio said. "We need to be aware as a community that tourism is based on travelers and travelers are being hit hard in their ability to get here."

Air travel is being hit hard, but Carroccio said the Manchester area is fortunate in that it's largely a driving destination and that might work well as people might choose to come to Manchester instead of going elsewhere.

"I think Southern Vermont is a safe place to be," Carroccio said. "Vermont is a clean air state, it's rural and there's not a lot of people here. We're seeing a big uptick in people looking for houses and places to stay for vacations. We have to be really cautiously optimistic."

Carroccio serves on boards for the Dorset Theater Festival, Green Mountain Bluegrass & Roots Festival and other events, which he said are developing contingency plans.

"Those are economic drivers for us," he said.

Another business watching the virus is Mack Molding, which has so far not had to make significant changes to its production as a result of the virus' impact on Chinese manufacturing plants, the company's president, Jeff Somple, said Monday.

"Supply chain disruptions are part of the normal course of business in the world of manufacturing," Somple said in an emailed statement. "Whether it's Coronavirus in China, tariffs or natural disasters, we plan and monitor accordingly, and as of yet, we have not experienced any shortages that have caused us to make significant production changes. Like all employers we continue to monitor the latest guidance from the CDC and regional health officials in an effort to protect our employees and best serve our customers."

Closures

Many events and organizations are wondering if it's time to cancel their planned event. Many cancellations have been announced and more will come.

Even church suppers are not immune from the virus' impacts.

The Dorset Community Churched late Wednesday that their planned community supper scheduled for March 19 has been canceled due to the threat of the coronavirus.

The church announced in an email that the church leaders made the decision for "the health and well-being of our community."

The raffle drawing set for that dinner will be held at the worship service March 22.

Contact Darren Marcy at dmarcy@manchesterjournal.com or by cell at 802-681-6534.

Patricia LeBoeuf and Tiffany Tan contributed to this story.

LaBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.

Tan can be reached at ttan@benningtonbanner.com, @tiffgtan on Twitter or 802-447-7567 ext. 122.


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