BARRE, Vt. — For months, the brunt of the pandemic bypassed this small, blue-collar city in Washington County, about 70 miles from the Canadian border. Aside from a few scattered outbreaks, residents here and across Vermont held the coronavirus at bay, even as infections spread at breakneck pace beyond the state’s borders.
But this month, that sense of safety and isolation has been shaken. Hailed as a model of prevention with the lowest case rate in the country, Vermont is now facing a surge of the virus, with Washington County at the center.
“Here we are, right in the middle of it,” said Douglas Brent, the city’s fire chief. “It’s unnerving to me. I lie awake at night. It’s sort of depressing.”
Some Vermonters say a surge was inevitable. Others argue it’s the result of overconfidence. Whatever the view, the outbreak has jolted a state that went without a coronavirus death from July 28 to Nov. 4.
In less than three weeks through Thursday, Washington County more than tripled its total infections since the pandemic began in March. No deaths have been reported there over that span, but eight were recorded statewide, where the caseload rose 62.5 percent.
It’s been a stark awakening for a state that moved aggressively against the virus last spring. State health officials took comfort in the idea that Vermonters were paying attention to safety advisories and looking out for one another.
But recently, “the word of the hour has been complacency,” Brent said.
Once again, state officials are working to refocus Vermonters on the invisible danger among them. On Nov. 13, Governor Phil Scott announced new COVID-19 restrictions that are believed to be among the toughest in the nation.
People from different households are banned from visiting each other, both inside and outside, in public and in private. Travelers are subject to strict quarantine rules. Hospitals are barring visitors with only a few exceptions.
Those rules made for a sparer, sparser Thanksgiving in Vermont.
“Although we anticipated a surge, we didn’t anticipate it so suddenly,” said Joan Marie Misek, a district director for the Vermont Department of Health. “It’s been like ‘Bang!’ for us.”
Clad in protective gear, Misek stood outside Barre Municipal Auditorium recently as a light snow fell on a city that’s known globally for granite. Testing here has attracted between 200 and 400 people a day, some traveling 40 or 50 miles and waiting in long lines.
Linda Simpson, a 70-year-old from nearby Montpelier, had no symptoms when she arrived recently for a mid-morning appointment. But she had been exposed to someone who tested positive about a week ago and wanted to find out if she had the virus as well.
“I’m pretty concerned,” Simpson said. “People are getting sick from this and dying.”
Studies show that approximately 70 percent of Vermont’s recent cases are connected to social gatherings, rather than schools or restaurants where social distancing and other safety measures appear to be succeeding, Misek said.
Part of the spike can be attributed to “people being lax,” Misek said. “I think a lot of people fell into a false sense of security. Their resiliency might have been compromised in terms of what they were willing to give up.”
As of Friday, Vermont had recorded 4,005 cases and 67 deaths, far below the 207,284 confirmed cases and 10,372 deaths reported Wednesday in more-populous Massachusetts. Although Massachusetts also has seen a surge, the trend here seemed particularly alarming for Vermonters because of the previous low numbers.
“We’re in the middle of a real public health crisis here,” said Dr. Mark Yorra, an internist who administered tests in Barre as a volunteer with the Vermont Medical Reserve Corps.
It took 88 days for Vermont to reach its first 1,000 cases, 142 days for the next 1,000, and only 22 days to record an additional 1,000 and cross the 3,000-case threshold.
In Washington County, the cumulative caseload stood at 180 on Nov. 9. By Friday, that number had soared to 624, the second-highest in the state behind Chittenden County, which includes the city of Burlington and the University of Vermont.
Causes for continued concern are easy to find: The state has a large elderly population, and many of its 624,000 people live within striking distance of New York and Massachusetts, which have been hot spots during long stretches of the pandemic.
State health officials “were sending out the messages, and people weren’t hearing them,” said Brent, the longest-serving fire chief in the state. “People were saying. ‘Those words don’t apply to me. We’re all set in central Vermont.’ "
Halloween parties apparently contributed to the spike, health officials said. That the date fell on a Saturday did not help.
“For Halloween, we focused on young families with kids and ensuring they do it in a safe way. What we didn’t really talk about was the adult parties,” said Tracy Dolan, the state’s deputy commissioner for public health.
“Maybe they did have good intentions,” Dolan said of the revelers. “But you can’t wear a mask when you’re eating or drinking.”
Another culprit has been an outbreak connected to hockey and broomball tournaments at a Montpelier ice rink, which officials have linked to more than 100 COVID-19 cases since October.
“A lot of the fallout from that outing reached here,” Brent said. “Because of that, the tentacles of this thing spread through central Vermont.”
Misek, the district health director, said she expects another bump in cases over the next two weeks because of Thanksgiving get-togethers. And then there are gatherings associated with Vermont’s deer-hunting season, which ends Sunday for rifles but resumes Dec. 5 for muzzleloaders, when hunters from Vermont and beyond cluster in cabins.
As the virus has spread, Dr. Jan Carney of the University of Vermont said the state continues to emphasize the need for renewed, constant vigilance.
“Everybody does have COVID fatigue,” said Carney, a former state health commissioner who is associate dean for public health at UVM’s Larner College of Medicine. Through it all, the safety messaging will continue, she said.
Ultimately, Brent said, it falls on individuals to do the right thing.
The state mandates that people wear masks when they can’t maintain 6 feet of distance in public spaces, indoors or out, from anyone outside their households. But Brent considers that requirement unenforceable.
“I’m very pleased when I see the local merchants with signs that say, ‘No masks, no entry,’ " said Brent, who praised the efforts of state officials to contain the virus.
The pandemic, in ways big and small, has changed the culture at the firehouse, Brent said. Children can’t clamber aboard the firetrucks like before. Firefighters aren’t allowed to wear their uniforms out of the station when the shifts end.
“Who would have thought of that? That’s not in the manual,” Brent said from behind a mask. “I don’t even like sending my people out. They can bring something home to their families.”
Brent, 66, said he likes to lead by example, and Thanksgiving at his household showed how seriously he’s taking the virus.
His grandson, his grandson’s wife, and two great-grandchildren didn’t gather at Brent’s house for the holiday, even though they live just a half-mile away. The chief’s daughter also stayed away, although Brent and his wife prepared a “to-go” dinner for her.
“It’s very hard,” Brent said, folding his arms and shaking his head. “But I had to tell them, ‘I’m sorry, but you’re uninvited for Thanksgiving.’ ”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.