BURLINGTON — The spread of Covid-19 associated with a University of Vermont men’s basketball playoff game appears to be more extensive than was previously reported.
Ten more people who attended the March 10 game said they later experienced symptoms, bringing the total to at least 16 Vermonters. Three of them have died of the virus.
Some of those reporting severe symptoms were not able to get a test, so there is no way to determine with certainty the full extent of the actual spread.
More than 3,200 fans crowded into Patrick Gym for the playoff game, in which the UVM Catamounts defeated the University of Maryland Baltimore County 81-74. The virus had only just reached Southern Vermont, with the first positive test announced three days before. But the prevalence of cases that emerged after the game may indicate that the coronavirus was in the state much earlier than the official count suggests.
After readers came forward with reports of their own symptoms, VTDigger began collecting information on those who attended the game and came down with Covid-19. The data will help track the spread of the virus at the game and create a fuller picture of its progression within Vermont.
Three UVM fans in the stands that night ultimately succumbed to the virus.
Dave Reissig, an 82-year-old St. Albans resident, sat toward the back of section 2 with a friend. Within days, he came down with laryngitis, which he thought was from the cheering, according to his daughter Kris Owens. The symptoms turned into a cold and then a fever, and he died of the virus on March 30.
Reissig hadn’t attended any other large gatherings other than the game, Owens said, a thought that leaves her with a tinge of regret. “In the back of your head, there’s always the thought: if he didn’t go to the game … ,” she said. But she added, “My dad made a choice to go to the game. It was something he loved.”
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Bernie Juskiewicz and Mike Rappold, former neighbors in Cambridge, Vt., sat one row apart in section 4. Both Juskiewicz and Rappold and their wives, Suzan and Rae, all tested positive for the virus. Bernie and Mike, both avid UVM fans, both later died of the virus.
Fans who later came down with Covid-19 remembered the evening with a combination of nostalgia and horror, as they recounted the enthusiasm of the sold-out crowd, with fans seated shoulder to shoulder. “I just remember the sense of foreboding,” said Suzanne Garrity, a 54-year-old Burlington resident. As the UVM team moved closer to victory, an older woman turned around to offer Garrity high fives. All the while Garrity was thinking, “Oh I don’t think you should be doing that,” she recalled.
Sure enough, Garrity and her husband Roger both came down with flu-like symptoms within a week, she said, though they were never able to get a Covid test.
In short order, the America East Conference would cancel the March 14 championship game and the NCAA would scrap the tournament that the Catamounts were on the verge of making. UVM spokesperson Enrique Corredera said the university deferred to the Vermont Department of Health in determining whether the game was a spreading event, and offered no further information. He noted to VTDigger last week that no other events had been canceled or closed due to the game.
The Department of Health deputy secretary Tracy Dolan told VTDigger earlier this month that the department had not identified any Covid cases associated with the game.
At a press conference Wednesday, Gov. Phil Scott said the state could “possibly” have done more contact tracing associated with the game if officials “had more tools at our disposal.” But, he said, ‘’that’s exactly what we’re doing today — just tracing.”
Section 4 appeared to have been hit especially hard; nine of the 16 people who reported symptoms sat in that section. Among them was Deb Lichtenfeld, the wife of UVM athletic director Jeff Schulman, also had down Covid-19-like symptoms but was never tested, Schulman said. Schulman, who was sitting at the scoring table, never fell ill, he said.
St. Albans teacher Nicky Patterson sat in the same section, next to a man who coughed and coughed. She tested positive the next week.
A broadcaster for the Northeast Sports Network also contracted the virus.
So did two couples in section 6, as well as Kevin Arthur, 65, a longtime season ticket holder. The spread of the virus is making him second guess buying tickets for next year, he said; Arthur’s wife, Dianne, who attended the game with him, never caught the virus and is still vulnerable.
That spread may have started even earlier — at a first round playoff against the University of Maine.
South Burlington resident Tia Trottier said she and her husband, Peter, and three friends attended the previous game on March 7 and all came down with virus symptoms. Two referees working at that game also later tested positive.
UMaine players, staff, coaches and staff self-quarantined for two weeks after that game; UVM’s team did not, and no member ever experienced any symptoms, Corredera said.
On Wednesday, Health Commissioner Mark Levine defended the department’s approach to containing the spread of the virus. The state had a shortage of test kits at the time, but “we did know the basic principles about how the virus is transmitted and distancing behaviors,” he said. “It was only a few days later, we actually said, there are no more mass gatherings.”
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“We reacted very fast in terms of the global nature of the reaction,” he said.
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