Health Commissioner Mark Levine (left) and Gov. Phil Scott
At least 62 Chittenden County residents have tested positive for COVID-19 since an outbreak was discovered in Winooski two weeks ago, Health Commissioner Mark Levine said Monday.
Speaking at a press conference in Montpelier, Levine said that the latest case count included 48 Winooski residents, nine Burlingtonians and five other Chittenden County residents. "As I've said before, the virus doesn't really respect international, national, state or city boundaries," he said. "It spreads because we share the air we breathe."
According to Levine, none of the newly diagnosed have been hospitalized or killed by the disease — and only one in five of those interviewed by Department of Health staffers said they had experienced symptoms. Twenty-four of those diagnosed were under 18 years old, and the median age of the group was 21, Levine said.
State officials said that while they expect the case count to continueto grow in the coming days, they believe it remains concentrated in a particular community of Vermonters. "We continue to be able to make direct connections between the people involved in this case," Gov. Phil Scott said at the press conference. "As the Health Department put it to me, transmission is all within a close-knit web of people."
Dr. Patsy Kelso, the state epidemiologist, characterized the outbreak as "pretty well contained" and said she did not expect related cases to "pop up all over the state." She added, "We're pretty confident that, through contact tracing, we're getting to the place of boxing it in."
In response to the outbreak, the health department has ramped up testing in Chittenden County. According to Scott spokesperson Rebecca Kelley, 1,027 tests were conducted in Winooski and Burlington between June 1 and June 7. Throughout the state during that same period of time, Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said, 8,589 tests were administered.
"While some may look at the growing case count as a sign this is getting worse, it's important to remember that we're seeing all these positive tests because of all our expanded testing and tracing strategies," Scott said. "And that's exactly what we need to be doing to draw a fire line around this outbreak and keep it from spreading more broadly."
Citing confidentiality concerns, officials have been careful to avoid identifying the community at the center of the outbreak, but data released by the state show that many of those infected have been black or Asian. Winooski and Burlington are the most racially diverse communities in the state and are home to many New Americans.
Some interpreters and members of Vermont's immigrant communities have urged officials to do more to support New Americans affected by the outbreak.
In a statement to Seven Days on Monday, Department of Health spokesperson Ben Truman said that preliminary state and national data "suggest a disproportionate burden of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups."
At Monday's press conference, Levine urged Vermonters to avoid stigmatizing those at the center of the outbreak. "I want to emphasize again that this could happen anywhere," he said. "There is no shame in getting the virus that's been spreading around the world, across the country and into our state."
Levine acknowledged that some households may find it difficult to isolate infected family members within a small home. He said that city and state officials were working to connect those who test positive with resources to comply with recommendations, including hotel rooms and food delivery.
Also during Monday's press conference, Scott announced a loosening of restrictions governing sporting events. He said that, starting June 15, teams could begin practicing "low-contact" sports, such as baseball, softball, soccer and lacrosse.
On July 1, games would again be permitted, though the number of players, coaches and referees could not exceed 25. Crowd sizes would also be limited to 25. Those involved would be encouraged to maintain social distancing as much as possible, and high-contact sports such as football, wrestling and basketball would still be discouraged.
"Like everything else, this will obviously look a little different than normal, but we must find new ways of doing things, so we can get back to something more familiar while keeping people safe and healthy," Scott said.
Derek Brouwer contributed reporting.
Disclosure: Paul Heintz's spouse, Shayla Livingston, works for the Vermont Department of Health.