Health Care

Central Vermont hockey outbreak spreads to 18 people; tracing continues

Eighteen cases have been linked to youth and adult hockey leagues that use the rink at Central Vermont Memorial Civic Center. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

This post was updated at 6:37 p.m.

An outbreak among hockey leagues at Montpelier’s Central Vermont Memorial Civic Center has expanded to 18 people in the area, the Vermont Department of Health said Friday.

The outbreak is “associated with people who practiced or played” at the ice rink, including both adult and youth hockey teams and broomball teams, and several close contacts of players have also tested positive, the state said.

The department said people with links to the teams, the Civic Center and and their close contacts can get tested at a pop-up testing site at the Barre Auditorium on Saturday between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. 

Officials are not recommending that people in the broader Montpelier area get tested unless they have that connection, according to the press release.

At a press conference Friday, state officials expressed concern about the potential for a general rise in cases going into the cold weather.

“If we want our kids playing sports, if we want to be able to get back together with family and friends — all of which is really important to our mental health and social well-being — we have to be smart about how we do it,” said Gov. Phil Scott.

The players diagnosed with Covid exposed several other places during their infectious period — one college, three K-12 schools, and five workplaces, said Dr. Patsy Kelso, the state epidemiologist. She said she could not confirm the names of those places.

Several of the Vermont hockey players had also traveled out of state, leading to the possibility they may have been exposed to the virus while they were there, Scott said.

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New Hampshire ice rinks have been forced to close for two weeks to combat the spread of Covid outbreaks there. Scott didn’t anticipate that happening in Vermont, though, citing the stricter rules for Vermonters.

However, later Friday, Scott ordered Vermont rinks to not take any new reservations from now until Oct. 30. The facilities may continue with already planned activities.

Scott said the Montpelier-area cases and the New Hampshire cases may be linked, and the order is to prevent an influx of new users to Vermont facilities.

“To reduce the risk to Vermonters, and to help sustain the progress we have made, rinks in Vermont may not take any additional reservations for the next two weeks,” Scott said in a press release Friday afternoon.

At his press conference earlier, Scott said state officials are looking closely at the risks and plan to issue further guidance on ice rinks next week, but he thinks hockey can be played safely as long as masks are worn, social distancing is observed, and other precautions are followed.

‘They’ve had 158 cases thus far among 23 different teams, so their issue is far greater than ours at this point,” Scott said. Still,

Kelso said fall travel for the holiday season is another source of potential spread, pointing to the states’ travel map, which allows people in very few counties outside Vermont to travel here without quarantine.

“We all want to see our friends and family who live farther away,” she said. “And because these are people we trust, we may let our guard down more than we usually do. … But the fact is we don’t know.”

Schools see first case of community transmission

Union Elementary School in Montpelier reported two cases of Covid, Kelso said, making it the first school in the state to have Covid transmission occur within a school.

At least 10 Vermont schools have reported Covid cases, but never before had a case in one student or teacher spread to another student or teacher, officials said. 

Tracking the exact number of cases in schools can be complicated, because different organizations report case numbers at different times. The official source of information is the Department of Health’s report on its website, but it updates the school figures only once a week, on Monday, listing cases reported as the previous Friday.

That state report currently lists six cases, but VTDigger tracked reports across the state and found at least 13 cases statewide, reported at statewide press conferences and through schools themselves. 

Schools and state officials also provide different information depending on how they interpret the law. The state refuses to say whether a case was a student or a teacher, citing health privacy and student privacy laws. But schools themselves have decided to report whether a case was a student or teacher. 

Kelso said the state’s report on school cases only includes those in which the person was physically present at the school at the time they were infectious, while schools may decide to report cases that didn’t go into the building. For instance, students in all-remote learning aren’t counted, nor are students who may have stayed home to quarantine and weren’t inside the school while infectious.

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“A school may be aware of a case, and even if that case was not at school at all, they were infectious,” she said. “And, you know, through the nature of Vermont and our small towns, people may in fact know about that case and have concerns. So schools may put out information just to show that they’re aware of a situation.”

Heather Bouchey, deputy secretary of the Agency of Education, said over 90% of schools responded to a state survey and 62% reported using the hybrid model — that is, the students were in school part time or for a few days a week.

Another 18% were fully remote and 20% were in person, according to the data she presented. Elementary schools were more likely to offer in-person instruction than higher grades: More than a quarter of them were fully in person, compared to only 7% of high schools.

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Erin Petenko

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