Reporter debrief: Georgia, Vt. doesn't have its own zip code. It's affecting COVID-19 case counts
Nearly 5,000 people live in Georgia, Vermont. The town itself, though, does not have its own zip code. In fact, it shares three different ones with surrounding municipalities.
The lack of a zip code has caused pandemic data gathered about positive COVID-19 case counts to be inaccurate.
VPR's Mary Engisch spoke with St. Albans Messenger reporter Alek Fleury about the anomaly. Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Engisch: Alek, since the pandemic began, and the Vermont Health Department started counting cases, Georgia has recorded very few positive COVID-19 cases, or so it looks so in the data.
What did your reporting find right off the bat about COVID case count numbers not being accurate because of this zip code issue with Georgia, Vermont?
Alek Fleury: It goes without saying that COVID does not respect town borders. When you look at the Vermont Department of Health data, it says that case counts from the beginning of the pandemic in Georgia have only added up to 30 cases since March of 2020.
And when you look at those surrounding towns, Milton, Fairfax and St Albans City, Milton has 1,203 cases since March of 2020, Fairfax 426 and St. Albans City 1,659.
When we're thinking about Georgia, Georgia is not a tiny town, either. Georgia has 5,000 people just about.
But for Georgia specifically, it just gets hard to think about their individual case rate when those towns are split across two different counties — Chittenden and Franklin — one of which has, you know, Burlington, which has a very high case rate just because of its population.
You know, from speaking with town officials, it gets kind of hard to justify any kind of COVID protocols when you don't really know what the number in your town is.
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Let me ask you quickly, like how does the case count data get collected, by the state? Or people supplying a zip code or a phone number which corresponds with these other towns?
Yeah, so COVID numbers are reported on the Vermont Department of Health website by zip code, because that's how they received them.
How long did the case count seem wonky until someone realized that Georgia isn't just an anomaly that has avoided more COVID cases?
I was aware of it actually over the summer, where I did a story about why Georgia's case count was so low. I was hearing from Georgia residents that it was odd and that they didn't really understand it.
But it kind of showed up again recently, when I was watching a select board meeting in Milton, and the select board was discussing whether or not to institute a town-wide mask mandate. And at the end of that conversation, the select board chair of Milton basically announced that the data was skewed.
And so that conversation about town-wide protocols was attached to this speculation about their town's data.
When I spoke to the select board chair Scott St. Onge in Georgia, he basically said the same thing — that it becomes harder and harder to justify these town-wide protocols, when you don't really have any numbers to point to.
And you refer to mask mandates and other sorts of things that towns and municipalities are mulling over. What else can this non-zip code issue skew or affect? And this is not a new issue for Georgia, right? What did your reporting find?
The pandemic has kind of re-illuminated this issue for Georgia, at least in my thinking of it.
For decades, Georgia residents have tried to get Georgia a zip code, beginning in the early 2000s with Colin Conger, who chaired an actual committee to get Georgia a zip code.
Conger is also on the board of directors for the Georgia Historical Society. He basically talked to anybody who would listen trying to get Georgia a zip code.
He spoke to Sen. Leahy, Sen. Sanders. Originally they wanted to push USPS to get a post office in Georgia that would get them their own zip code.
But when that didn't work, because USPS was phasing out post offices at the time, they ended up switching to a system where Georgia residents could choose their own zip code where their zip code would say, “Georgia, Vermont,” and then have the zip code afterwards.
The catch of that is, what ended up happening is, as part of the vote, USPS said that one of the zip codes had to reach a 50% threshold.
But when you have a town that's split by three different zip codes, and everybody's voting for their own, no zip code was actually able to reach that 50% threshold.
So momentum completely stopped. There really isn't that much of a movement to get Georgia a zip code anymore.
From my speaking with Colin Conger, you know, the frustration is still there. He still puts on his mail, “Georgia, Vermont, 05478,” I think it is.
But I would also say that, in thinking of a future forward for getting Georgia a zip code, I spoke to Steve Doherty, who's a spokesperson for USPS. And he said that a town can request a zip code change through the local postmaster, which would go up to district and then headquarters. But unless that increases the mail flow, it probably won't happen.
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