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Nearly 3,000 more deaths recorded in Vermont during peak pandemic years

False-color rendering of SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Centers for Disease Control

Delayed care, the effects of isolation, and uncounted COVID-related deaths — those factors contributed to Vermont reporting nearly 3,000 more fatalities from 2020 to 2023 than would have been expected were it not for the pandemic. But what's somewhat surprising is that fewer than one third of those deaths can be directly attributed to the COVID-19 virus itself.

Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with VTDigger reporter Erin Petenko about her reporting on recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: I thought that the best way to start explaining this, because it can be a little convoluted, is to explain first what this data does not indicate. And that would be that the nearly 3,000 more deaths that would have been expected in that three-year period does not come from any intentional underreporting, let's say of COVID-related deaths, by the state of Vermont. Is that right?

Erin Petenko: Yeah, I talked to a researcher about this data. And you know, one of the questions I had for him was, "How do we know that these additional deaths that happened during the pandemic, compared to before the pandemic, were people not checking COVID deaths?" And he said that's really difficult to say for certain. And it's quite possible that especially early on, there were lots of death certificates and people investigating deaths who didn't understand the full effects of COVID. So, it could be that here and there, that was a factor. But what we do know is that in Vermont, they do take a lot of steps to specifically ensure that they're counting COVID deaths, such as investigating any deaths that have COVID-like symptoms, and sending out post mortem COVID tests.

And in your article too, you mentioned that it seems like a lot of people were not going to get regular checkups or going to the hospital for things that may have been happening to them, in part because of the unknown of COVID, or the fear of it. What were some of those factors?

Even before like the worst days of the surge in Vermont, we were seeing a real squeeze in hospital beds here because of understaffing and really an overburdened health care system in general. So it's quite possible that either people were reluctant to get to the doctor, because they were afraid of getting COVID — or that they had delayed care for something that, you know, didn't seem very serious at the time, they tried to make an appointment and they couldn't find it in time, and they ended up having a heart attack and dying. So there's like a lot of different factors at play. And I think each story is going to be a little bit different.

Now, I don't know if you would call this a silver lining, but there was also a recorded — a reduction in deaths from other illnesses during the pandemic that were not related to COVID. Is that right? Things like influenza, chronic respiratory illness?

Yeah, for sure. That's because, you know, when people were in isolation, and also wearing masks in public, it seems like that really curbed the spread of the flu, and other infectious disease-related respiratory illnesses. Now, unfortunately, we had another bad flu season, at least at national level, last winter. So it's not really clear how long that benefit will last. But the silver lining to that, I suppose, is that they are investigating, taking the COVID mRNA vaccines and making flu-related mRNA vaccines that are going to be more accurate. I talked to the Department of Health Commissioner Mark Levine and he said that it seems likely that that will happen in the next couple of years.

And what are the chief lessons or takeaways from these numbers health officials can learn from to keep fatalities lower, perhaps, in the future?

I talked to Stephen Woolf, a population health researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University and to him, the main takeaway is that we need to strengthen our primary health care system, rather than relying on ERs that during the crux of the pandemic were understaffed and overwhelmed by both COVID and non-COVID related issues.

You know, it's so fascinating to me, because the whole perception of time, if you will, during this pandemic has been thrown off by so many people. And in many ways, we are still trying to make sense of what's happened. Now that we are in this “post pandemic” world, which we're kind of really not because COVID is still with us.

Yeah. When when we talk about COVID being an endemic illness, that does not mean that it's not killing people. It is probably the seventh or eighth top cause of death in Vermont in the past year or two and will probably continue to be in the top 10. So, it's more like COVID being endemic is like slotting itself into an additional health concern that we're going to have to really keep an eye on, monitor, and adjust to in the long term, using strategic tools like vaccination, masking when necessary, things like that. You know, the researcher that I talked to about this said that we unfortunately can expect for this trend of lower life expectancies and higher deaths to continue for many years to come.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Karen is Vermont Public's Director of Radio Programming, serving Vermonters by overseeing the sound of Vermont Public's radio broadcast service. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She has produced many projects for broadcast over the years, including the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke, and interviews with local newsmakers with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb. In 2021 Karen worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
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