The coronavirus outbreak in Winooski is confined to "one social network of families," Gov. Phil Scott said at a press briefing on Friday, but it could merit citywide restrictions if more infections are discovered.
Shortly before the governor spoke in Montpelier, a handful of interpreters and members of Vermont's immigrant communities showed up to a separate press conference outside of Winooski City Hall to ask city leaders and Vermont Department of Health officials to do more to support New Americans affected by the outbreak.
"One of the reasons why people are so infected may be because they don't have the information," said Dr. Virginie Diambou, a member of a multilingual task force that has been translating public health information into at least 10 languages. "They don't speak English, they speak their own languages, and they are being told there are no funds to be able to hire interpreters or translators."
COVID-19 data analyzed by Seven Days on Thursday indicated that as many as 31 of the 34 new confirmed cases in Winooski involve people of color. But state health officials and Winooski leaders continued to offer only vague descriptions of the outbreak, emphasizing only that it was not limited to one neighborhood and reiterating their pride in the city's culturally diverse population.
"This outbreak is not confined to one cultural group, one area of the city, one language group," city manager Jessie Baker said.
Winooski is the most densely populated city in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. It is also the state's most racially diverse. Data from around the country have shown that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected people of color.
More than 430 people were tested at daily walk-up sites held every day this week, Health Commissioner Mark Levine said. Another clinic was held Friday and will continue to operate daily next week.
One case in Burlington, affecting a resident in the Old North End, is related to the Winooski outbreak, Mayor Miro Weinberger said Friday. The state will host a mobile testing clinic at the Old North End Community Center on Saturday and Sunday, he said.
Mass testing, along with individual behavior and contact tracing, are key strategies for containing the outbreak. Officials encouraged all Winooski residents to get tested, and Winooski Mayor Kristine Lott issued a "call to action" to abide by public health guidelines.
"Wear your mask when you're out in public, social distance, keep washing your hands, and do what you can to keep each other safe," she said. "It is still safe to be out in Winooski, as long as you are following those guidelines."
Winooski Mayor Kristine Lott
The outbreak emerged late last week as a small cluster of cases. Today, Scott announced that he was lifting some statewide restrictions on out-of-state travel and indoor dining but said the health department could suggest that Winooski "take a pause on these openings" if further testing were to show "wider community spread."
The residents and advocates who attended the Winooski press conference said the 14-day quarantine period for those who test positive can be especially difficult for working-class immigrant families who can't afford to miss two weeks of pay. They also noted that many New American families live in large, multigenerational households, where self-isolation at home is not possible.
State health officials said rental assistance, food assistance and quarantine relocation options are available.
"The state will help with all of that," state epidemiologist Patsy Kelso said. "They just need to say, 'I need help.'"
The language task force that Diambou works on has helped get the message out but doesn't have enough funds to translate public health information as quickly or into as many languages as she believes necessary.
Winooski has so far contributed $1,000 to the group, and Burlington has spent several thousand dollars on COVID-19 translation services, though an exact figure was not immediately available. The state health department supports the task force through a $66,000 grant to the Association of Africans Living in Vermont, spokesperson Ben Truman said.
Winooski officials said they are looking to do more. "We know this is an issue," Baker said.
Burlington plans to create a "racial equity rapid response team" to improve communication with communities of color for the remainder of the coronavirus state of emergency, Weinberger said Friday.
Levine said the health department's ability to stop the virus' spread within immigrant communities requires communication and trust. Even with the help of interpreters, contact tracing requires extensive interviewing that can seem invasive.
"This is a very challenging and delicate process," he said.