Health Care

Thanksgiving dinners could double Vermont infections if people keep their plans, officials say

Mark Levine
“If you want to keep working, your kids to stay in school, to prevent more people from potentially dying from Covid-19, follow the governor’s orders,” said Dr. Mark Levine, state health commissioner. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

If people follow through with their reported plans to hold gatherings on Thanksgiving, Vermont could face 3,200 to 3,800 new infections from those meetings alone, officials said at a press conference Tuesday.

Those new infections would effectively double the total number of infections in Vermont, state data shows, as well as cause 40 to 50 new hospitalizations. Those numbers are based on a national survey that revealed more than a third of Americans plan to hold multi-household gatherings this holiday.

Officials presented the projection Tuesday while reminding Vermonters of a ban on multi-household gatherings of any kind. Gov. Phil Scott said recent viral spread was a key reason for the restrictions.

Scott began the press conference by sharing the story of Mary Pat Brown, a mother of six from Bristol who recently lost her life due to the virus.

“This is a tragic reminder of why we’re doing what we’re doing,” he said. “And why we’re continuing to ask Vermonters to sacrifice to slow the spread of the virus, protect the vulnerable, and to keep families like Mary Pat’s whole.”

Dr. Mark Levine, the commissioner of the Department of Health, said he knew the new rules would be hard on residents, but the “the virus doesn’t operate any differently just because we want to keep up traditions.”

“So if you want to keep working, your kids to stay in school, to prevent more people from potentially dying from Covid-19, follow the governor’s orders,” he said. “Don’t get together with anyone outside your household, (and) limit any travel that’s not essential.”

Despite a nationwide rise in cases — nearly 170,000 new infections each day — an Ohio State University Medical Center survey found that 38% of Americans planned to continue with their Thanksgiving plans.

The Vermont Department of Financial Regulation worked with consulting firm Oliver Wyman to project what could happen if that many Vermonters followed through with Thanksgiving get-togethers. The Ohio State study did not provide state-by-state data.

The key questions that formed the basis of their analysis: How many people coming to dinners have Covid; how many people will get infected from those dinners; and how many dinners will there be.

Scott said the state analysis shows that the chances of getting the virus from a dinner in Washington County today is between 25% and 50%.

Courtesy Vermont Department of Financial Regulation

In previous years, people have traveled to and from Vermont from all over the country, particularly the Northeast region, state data shows. Thanksgiving has some of the heaviest travel of the fall.

“The results are quite alarming and quite scary, actually,” Scott said.

Levine said people who don’t follow the state guidelines should take strong precautions after the holiday: quarantining for two weeks afterward, or getting tested after a week to end quarantine after seven days, provided the test result is negative for the virus.

Experts have also advised people gathering for Thanksgiving to take extreme caution on the holiday. A survey of epidemiologists by The New York Times found the ones who planned to hold Thanksgiving dinners were hosting the dinner outside, or limiting it to an exchange of dishes.

Still, four in five planned to avoid any multi-household dinner altogether. 

Early signs of progress

Vermont reported 49 new cases of Covid today, bringing its total cases to 3,762. While cases tend to rise and fall periodically, sometimes during the course of a week, this is the third day in a row that cases have declined.

It’s also a significant decline from the peak of the current wave: 150 cases, set on Nov. 18, according to Department of Health data.

Department of Financial Regulation Commissioner Mike Pieciak said the decline could be an early sign of Scott’s orders taking effect. It’s been roughly 10 days since Scott signed the order to limit multi-household gatherings, just enough time for infections to incubate and appear in the data.

“With these positive trends happening right before Thanksgiving, it’s all the more important to follow the public health guidance and avoid any sort of Thanksgiving surge here in Vermont,” Pieciak said.

But the full effect won’t be clear until the full 14-day window has passed, according to the presentation.

The state is still predicting a 41% increase in new cases over the next four weeks, according to Pieciak’s presentation. Hospitalizations are also projected to increase, although the state should stay well within the capacity of the medical system, the presentation shows.

Most of the recent growth is in Washington and Orange counties. Washington County was the site of an outbreak that began at a Montpelier ice rink.

The state is continuing to respond with increased testing of K-12 staff and people in the community. Levine said he expects the positivity rate of K-12 staff testing to be very low, somewhere in the range of 0.25% to 0.5%.

Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said there’s been a fairly significant increase in testing. On-demand testing sites are coming online, with pop-up tests held when cases jump in a particular area. 

This week, the state will have on-demand testing in Berlin, Northfield, Stratton, Newport, Fairlee, Bennington and St. Johnsbury. The state plans to add Springfield, Morrisville and others next week.

About 41,000 people were tested last week. The state has recently conducted more than 10,000 tests in a single day.

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