Vermont officials are calling for vigilance amid alarming signs that the state may be ceding ground in its fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
State officials are strongly urging residents to stay home for the holidays, avoid unnecessary travel and keep all private gatherings to 10 people or fewer. The Vermont Department of Health is also encouraging anyone who recently attended an event with people outside of their "usual social circle" to consider getting tested immediately.
State officials' renewed calls for caution come as the number of coronavirus infections in Vermont has risen sharply of late. On Saturday, Vermont reported its first COVID-19-related death since July, while the state reported 43 new cases on Sunday — the most in a single day since April 9.
As of Monday, the seven-day case average was 28, the highest since mid-April. Four people are currently hospitalized, including one person in the intensive care unit; four more people are hospitalized "under investigation," according to the health department.
In a press release Sunday, the health department said it was investigating "more outbreaks and situations than at any time since the pandemic started."
"Some of the new cases are associated with current outbreaks, with others scattered among people in various communities," the release said. "Many of the cases, clusters and outbreaks are tracing back to social gatherings where masking and physical distancing break down."
Adding to the concern, the City of Burlington said over the weekend that its wastewater surveillance program detected a spike in virus RNA discharges from the New North End. According to city data, a November 5 test found a viral concentration that was more than 10 times higher than any other previous wastewater test since the program launched in August.
There is no way to tell how many people may have the virus based on those results, since experts estimate that anywhere from 40 to 80 percent of people shed markers in their stool, according to Brian Lowe, Burlington's chief innovation officer.
But Lowe said wastewater readings can nevertheless be a useful early indicator of the virus' prevalence in a community, with results sometimes proceeding clinical testing by up to seven days. While a higher reading does not necessarily mean higher infection rates, "there’s likely a growing number of cases in that area," he said.
With that in mind, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger announced Monday that the city would install two message boards along North Avenue urging residents to take caution. The city is also working with the state to create new pop-up testing sites in the coming days.
Vermont's spike comes as cases are surging to record levels across the country. The New York Timesreported that least 24 states announced more cases last week than in any other seven-day stretch since the pandemic began. The U.S. reported more than 132,000 new cases last Friday, breaking the previous record of 121,000 set the day before. The country has now eclipsed more than 10 million coronavirus cases in total and more than 230,000 deaths.
In Vermont, officials said last Friday that they were following more than 10 specific outbreaks, including several connected to a hockey and broomball league in the Montpelier area now linked to more than 110 cases statewide. Officials said they were monitoring an additional 40 "situations," including some impacting childcare centers, workplaces and schools.
Many of the new cases skew younger, with people under the age of 39 making up a larger share of new infections over the last two weeks than previous months. Saint Michael's College accounted for 76 of those recent cases.
Gov. Phil Scott will likely face questions at his regular press briefing Tuesday about whether the recent rise in cases will force him to consider reinstating some restrictions.
Both he and Health Commissioner Mark Levine are urging Vermonters to recommit themselves to best health practices so that they can once again slow the spread of the virus and ensure that businesses and schools can remain open.
"The data and the trends of the past few weeks are sending a clear message," Levine said at a press conference last Friday, "that we need to up our game in order to protect ourselves and our communities."