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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Vermont's Deputy Health Commissioner On COVID-19 Data Collection, Demographic Trends

The exterior of the Vermont Department of Health office in Burlington at 108 Cherry Street.
Taylor Dobbs
VPR File
The Vermont Department of Health Office in Burlington.

Who is most affected by COVID-19? We take an in-depth look at Vermont's case demographic data, and get the latest on health and safety guidance for residents and businesses.
Our guest is:

Broadcast live after Gov. Phil Scott's 11:00 a.m. press conference on Monday, June, 1 2020; rebroadcast at 7:00 p.m.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

As the trend line for the reduction of positive cases of coronavirus in Vermont continues to decline, Gov. Phil Scott is slowly reopening parts of the Vermont economy. Starting June 1, groups of up to 25 people can gather together with proper social distancing, gyms can be open and close contact businesses like hair salons will be allowed to be open with some capacity restrictions. Most retail stores and outdoor restaurants have been gradually reopening for the past week or so.

Despite these steps, there are still a lot of questions about how Vermonters should respond to this pandemic. VPR’s Bob Kinzel spoke with Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan to answer some of these questions.

Bob Kinzel: We heard the governor and Commissioner Levine talking about the Health Department compiling demographic data about the cases of coronavirus. What have we learned so far?

Thanks for the question. We’ve learned what we know is true for the country: that people of color in particular are more susceptible to this illness, and that we have higher rates of COVID-19 among black or African American Vermonters compared to white Vermonters. And unfortunately, it really hammers home the inequities that we have in this country, the systemic racism and the social injustice that form some of the bedrock of our society.

It is not a matter of genetics; it’s a matter of inequity. And it reinforces once again, the work that we need to do to address the root causes of these inequities.

Chart illustrating rates of COVID-19
Credit Vermont Department of Health / Vermont Department of Health
Vermont Department of Health
An excerpt from the Vermont Department of Health's Weekly Summary Of COVID-19 Case Data for March 5 through May 27 compares the rate of COVID-19 cases among Vermonters by race. The Vermont Department of Health defines "rate" as the number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in a particular group, divided by the total number of people in that group. Using rates allows for more direct comparisons between groups.

Given the demographic information you just mentioned, wouldn’t it make sense for the state to do a lot more pop-up testing in those areas where there are more people at risk?

Absolutely, and that’s what we’re doing. The CDC has also recommended that we test in areas that are more vulnerable, so that includes elderly and it also includes people of color. It may include peoples whose housing situation is more unstable, so we’re going to look at a variety of groups, and we’re doing that now. We’re doing more pop-up testing, we’re reaching out more, we’re translating materials for those whom English is not their first language.

Have questions, comments, experiences or concerns you would like to share about coronavirus? Take our brief survey.

I noticed that over in New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has re-opened parts of the state on a regional basis. Is that a possible approach Vermont could take?

Well that’s an interesting question. One way we’re thinking about it is less about opening parts of our state bit by bit but thinking about other states, and travel to other states. We’re looking at the high incidence counties in nearby states and beginning to think about guidance. So maybe we’ll be able to be a little more nuanced about what kinds of guidance we give to people coming in, depending on the county they’re coming from.

For a timeline outlining Vermont’s response to COVID-19, head here.

If we looked at a map of Vermont’s 14 counties, would we see that the number or percentage of positive cases is much lower in some counties than others? And some people might say, well why don’t we develop a regional approach here too?

We would certainly see that certain counties are much lower. Although now at this point, while the cumulative number may be different, the actual new cases, which is what we refer to as incidence, is very low. So it would probably make sense in Vermont to do a more uniform approach at this time.

At the press briefing on Friday, I thought I heard Commissioner Levine talk about the difference in how adults spread this virus and how children do, and that it’s much more likely that children are going to get it from adults, than adults are going to get it from children. First of all, do I have that right?

Again, this isn’t Vermont data because the number of children who have contracted the virus in Vermont is very small, but what we’re seeing nationally and internationally is that children appear to be very poor vectors for the disease, in part because there aren’t a lot of them who are infected.

A chart comparing rates of death among patients who contract COVID-19 by race
Credit Vermont Department of Health / Courtesy Vermont Department of Health
Courtesy Vermont Department of Health
An excerpt from the Vermont Department of Health's Weekly Summary Of COVID-19 Case Data for March 5 through May 27 compares the rate of death among Vermonters who have contracted, by race. The Vermont Department of Health defines rate as the number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in a particular group, divided by the total number of people in that group.

When we do look at contact tracing, we see that they do not appear to have a high rate of transmitting to others. So it appears that children are likely getting it from adults. And luckily for most children, the disease isn’t very severe. In many cases they may be asymptomatic, and they don’t appear to be transmitting it at the same rates that adults would be, which is great news when we think about opening schools etc. It doesn’t mean we wouldn’t do things carefully, but it does provide a little bit of comfort in terms of what we’re starting to learn about kids.

I was going to say that could have a big impact on the reopening of schools and could be a very important factor.

It would. I think the bigger cautionary note is that we’re learning new things literally every day and what we know today could change a little tomorrow, so we’re trying to be careful and looking at the numbers as they come in. These are early studies and we want to look a little more carefully before we make final decisions about what precautions we want to take in September.

More from VPR: The Latest News Updates on the Coronavirus in Vermont

We have restaurants now that are offering service outdoors in some parts of the state. Would you expect that people sitting at a table would be six feet away from each other, or what’s the right protocol there?

Well I would presume that if you’re going to dinner with others, it’s likely that you’re going to dinner with people that you’ve already been socially interacting with, so you may not be six feet apart at the same table, but the tables should be removed. And I believe the restaurants have been given that instruction, so they are spreading out their tables. Obviously, that doesn’t allow you to go to maximum capacity, so this is challenging for some restaurants, and it won’t work for all. But for those that are able to open up, outside is certainly safer than inside, and the more distance the better.

The health department certainly has been encouraging Vermonters to get tested, trying to do at least 1,000 tests per day. We’ve had a number of people sending us emails wondering how long do I reasonably have to wait after I get tested before I find out what the results are?

If you’re positive, we try to get you those results in 48 hours. If you’re negative, you might end up getting the results by a letter and that might take another day. Sometimes it’s less, but generally we’ve been saying about 48 hours.

More from NPR: Should I Get Tested For Coronavirus Just for the Heck Of It?

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
Lydia worked for Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS from 2019 until 2022.
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