Recent days have seen a spike in COVID-19 cases across the Northeast Kingdom along with new outbreaks in long-term care facilities and numerous cases in schools.
The Health Department reported 49 new cases in the Northeast Kingdom on Wednesday and 48 news cases on Thursday. Not counting March 2 when over 100 cases were reported as part of the outbreak at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, Wednesday and Thursday are the two highest days for new cases in the NEK since the pandemic began. Cases in the region, though, have been trending up for a couple weeks.
Cases in the Northeast Kingdom have shot up in recent days even as the prison outbreak has subsided.
In Caledonia County, which is now reporting 633 cases, 5 of the 10 biggest days came within the last 10 days. Wednesday saw 26 new cases and Thursday saw 20 new cases - the top 2 days of the pandemic.
Similarly in Orleans County, which is now at 835 cases, there were 26 cases reported on Thursday and 20 cases reported on Wednesday. These are the 4th and 5th biggest days for new cases since the pandemic began, and they would be the top two were it not for cases associated with the prison outbreak.
There have been 26 cases reported in Essex County in the last 2 weeks as well, and earlier this week Essex County set its record for most cases in a 2-week span since the pandemic began.
Amid this rise in regional cases, the Health Department also reported the NEK is home to three of the state’s six active outbreaks in long-term care facilities, including two that have recently begun. The first to occur was the Pines Rehab and Health Center in Lyndon which has now reached 10 cases. The two newer outbreaks are at St. Johnsbury Health & Rehab and Union House Nursing Home in Glover, which each have less than 6 cases as of Friday’s report.
This spike also comes as school officials across the region have reported cases among staff and students that in some districts exceed the number of cases seen during the winter surge of November and December.
North Country Superintendent John Castle said his district saw an 11-day run with at least one case being reported each day, and after a reprieve on Tuesday and Wednesday, there were three additional cases on Thursday and three more by midday Friday.
“Overall, the past couple of weeks have been a real uptick,” said Castle, and the cases have forced the shift to remote education at Derby Elementary, North Country Union HS and North Country Union Junior HS all this week.
“All three are scheduled to return to in-person learning on Monday—pending no flare-up of cases over the weekend,” said Castle.
Adam Rosenberg, Superintendent at Orleans Southwest SU, said March has had the most COVID cases for his schools aside from December.
“We have heard recently that individuals are gathering socially outside of school hours and not wearing masks or socially distancing,” said Rosenberg.
Mark Tucker, Superintendent at Caledonia Central SU, said recent cases have had an impact on his schools, including forcing the Danville Girls Basketball team to withdraw from this weekend’s D-IV state championship.
“Generally speaking my sense is the rates are up overall,” said Tucker. “Why this is happening is hard to pin down, but I recently heard one official acknowledge that the decision to play winter sports has been a contributing factor to much of the spread in schools across Vermont.”
“I cannot release specific details but I am aware that some of the spread we have seen can be traced back to social activities outside of school,” added Tucker.
“We have not specifically addressed our concerns about this to families, but may in the future,” added Tucker. “It is a touchy subject because it reads to some as if we are sticking our nose into their personal business, so the messaging has to be thought through.”
Twiladawn Perry, Head of School at Lyndon Institute, said LI has seen more cases in the last 30 days than the school had in the previous six months.
Perry said many of the cases appear to be connected, either through athletics or close relationships (family or friends).
“Our message is really to reaffirm the need to follow the guidelines, stay home if you aren’t well, and get vaccinated when you have the opportunity,” said Perry.
Jen Botzojorns, Superintendent of Kingdom East School District, said the recent cases in her schools match that seen in November and December.
“Everyone is tired of the pandemic, the distancing, the masks, the inability to hug folks. In exhaustion, we MUST keep doing what the science tells us,” said Botzojorns. “We are strong and resilient and can get through this. Folks should not be gathering in closed spaces unmasked, singing in groups, unmasked, we need to keep practicing the safety we know works. It is hard. I am so very appreciative of our faculty, staff, families, parents, children who continue to work hard to stay safe and healthy.”
Bev Davis, Superintendent at Orleans Central Supervisory Union, said her district has bucked the recent trend with only one case this week that forced a shift to remote and no other cases since January.
Brian Ricca, Superintendent of St. Johnsbury School, said his school has mostly dodged the surge as well.
“We have had a handful of cases, but for the most part, families and individuals have been proactive and careful about symptoms, ensuring that there are not any close contacts on campus,” said Ricca. “When we have had cases recently, largely we have been able to avoid pivoting to remote learning. We are incredibly grateful to our entire school community for being as thoughtful and careful as they’ve been.”
“To our communities, please continue to maintain the commitment to public health that we’ve shared to this point,” said Ricca. “A little more, a little longer, and we can enjoy each other again in the early part of this upcoming summer. We know it’s challenging and we also know that masking, physical distancing, and avoiding crowds will allow us to move past this pandemic as the Vermont summers we’ve come to know and love approach.”
The school administrators’ comments match that of state officials during their media briefing Friday.
Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said in-school transmission is not the real problem. “One of the prime ways that a student at school becomes a positive case is, when you do the tracing, through contact in their own household,” said Levine. “That is the predominant way actually.”
Gov. Phil Scott urged Vermonters to continue to follow the prevention guidance and to sign up for a vaccine as soon as they are eligible “because you are going to be protecting your school’s ability to open up to full-time operation which we know kids desperately need.”
Agency of Education Secretary Dan French also noted that the state continues to be optimistic going forward. “I think the broader trend is one of conditions improving as the vaccine makes a bigger impact on case counts,” said French.
While the NEK has seen a recent rise in cases, so too has the rest of the state, which had 251 cases reported on Thursday and 205 cases on Wednesday. Dr. Levine said while the numbers are significant, they don’t tell the whole story. Hospitalizations and ICU usage continue to fall, as does the average age of the newly infected, which suggests vaccinations are starting to have an impact on case rates among the older age bands.