Bennington resident Carrie Percey called out of work on Jan. 28, as soon as she realized she couldn’t smell the strong odor of her nail polish.
“I kind of thought I had dodged the bullet, but then the bullet hit,” she said.
She tested positive for Covid-19 the next day. Since then, both of her 71-year-old parents, her daughter and her niece, who all live in Bennington, have contracted the virus after helping transport each other to doctor’s appointments unrelated to Covid-19.
Percey, one of the first in the family to test positive, isn’t sure how she picked it up. It could have been at the restaurant in town where she works, or at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, where she recently had an MRI. Her positive test results prompted a call from Vermont’s Department of Health, but officials there couldn’t pinpoint it, either.
“They really didn’t know where I got it,” Percey said.
The same quiet Covid surge that infected the Percey family has led Bennington County to have the highest per capita case count of almost anywhere in the Northeastern United States.
Officials attribute the spread to a combination of family gatherings and regular travel across state borders with Massachusetts and New York. The county peaked at 312 cases in the past two weeks of the surge. On Sunday, Southwestern Vermont Medical Center reached capacity — the first hospital in Vermont to do so since the start of the pandemic.
State and local officials say the coming days and weeks will be a turning point in whether Bennington County residents can tamp down the spread.
The current rate of infection “is not sustainable for the long haul,” said Trey Dobson, chief medical officer and emergency room doctor at the hospital, which reported 25 Covid patients last weekend.
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Staff hurried to retrofit outpatient facilities as inpatient Covid units, Dobson said. Officials got on the phone with other hospitals, including Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and the University of Vermont Medical Center, to establish a plan to transfer any additional Covid patients who needed care. The Bennington hospital scheduled additional workers to make time for the constant donning and shedding of personal protective gear.
“The hospital system can’t keep expanding the number of patients with Covid,” Dobson said. “It’s very important that the community understands that.”
Seeking a source
Local officials also hope to tamp down the rumors about how, exactly, the county with early mask mandates is reporting such high Covid numbers.
“Most people here feel like they’ve done a good job” with masking and social distancing, said Manchester Town Manager John O’Keefe. The question they’re left with is, “Why do we have a surge here if we’ve done a good job in the past?” he said.
Confusion about the source of the outbreak is compounded by Bennington’s geographical position in the state. The New York border is a seven-minute drive west of Bennington’s town center, and the Massachusetts state line is a 15-minute drive south. The cases in the town reflect the case totals in the counties in nearby states more than they do Vermont’s totals, Levine said last week.
That’s inevitable, said Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover. When it comes to grocery shopping, doctor’s appointments and job commutes, the state borders are “porous,” she said. “It’s back and forth. There’s no hard line there.”
But the spread of Covid through travel has also led to pushback from locals, who worry that out-of-staters are bringing the virus into Vermont.
Bennington Town Manager Stu Hurd said he’s received calls from residents expressing concern after noticing out-of-state license plates at local grocery stores.
Some residents, particularly in comments on social media, have questioned whether the case counts are coming from visitors, many of whom drive through Vermont’s southern border towns on their way to ski resorts like Stratton, Mount Snow, Killington, Okemo and Bromley.
Jessica Berg, a nurse at a school in Londonderry, said her entire family recently tested positive for Covid-19. Her partner works at a restaurant in Stratton and often serves skiers from out of state. Many restaurants near the resort have transitioned to takeout or curbside pickup after a number of local employees tested positive for the virus.
Berg hopes the state will begin tracking high-risk activities at ski resorts, such as indoor dining, more closely.
“There was just no discussion that, possibly, [the Covid surge] could have been from people who are not quarantining from out of state, which we know is happening,” she said.
‘A little less careful’
But officials, particularly in towns that aren’t adjacent to ski resorts, point to local gatherings, not tourist visits, as the main cause for the prolonged community spread.
Hurd said several Bennington restaurants in town are not exercising enough caution, and some may be violating the governor’s orders. Conversations with state officials have led him to believe that’s part of the problem.
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“The folks from the Health Department just believe that it happens to be that we are perhaps a little less careful than our counterparts elsewhere,” Hurd said.
In Stamford, about 30 minutes southeast from Bennington, town officials tried to terminate Gov. Phil Scott’s executive order, which outlines guidelines intended to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Officials retracted their statements after Attorney General TJ Donovan sent them a letter debunking their legal argument.
Seven people have tested positive in Stamford in the last four weeks, the first cases in the town, according to the Department of Health’s town-by-town numbers.
Refusing to wear masks “certainly doesn’t help,” O’Keefe said of the area’s efforts to mitigate spread.
Meanwhile, local businesses and town officials are trying to keep cases down until the worst of the outbreak has subsided.
“It might feel a little like we are playing whack-a-mole these days,” said Burr and Burton Academy Headmaster Mark Tashjian in a note to parents last week that warned of yet another Covid case. But, he assured them, their efforts were working. “What’s important to note, however, is that in each case, thanks to the responsible actions of those directly involved, we are containing the spread.”
The trend line does seem to be going down.
After a peak of 40 new cases in Bennington County on Jan. 30, Covid totals have started to decline, said state Health Commissioner Mark Levine. Southwestern Medical Center was down to 17 Covid patients on Friday, according to spokesperson Ray Smith; it was the first time in three days that there were no new Covid inpatients.
Cases in nearby Massachusetts and New York counties have also decreased, giving cause for optimism that Vermont cases will also stay down.
But it’s too soon to celebrate, said Health Department spokesperson Ben Truman.
“A couple days doesn’t make a trend,” Truman warned.
Case totals in Rutland County have also started to rise, as the virus spreads north from Bennington.
Cases in southwestern Vermont still make up a significant portion of the state’s total cases. To help mitigate the spread, the Department of Health has offered staffing support to the medical center and plans to set up additional testing sites in the northern part of the county.
The Department of Health has also asked the Carlos Otis Clinic at Stratton Mountain Resort to offer more testing for skiers, local residents and resort employees, according to the clinic’s executive director Seth Boyd. Levine vowed Friday to continue “watching [the county’s cases] very closely.”
In the meantime, Manchester residents are staying home, O’Keefe said.
“That’s our hope, that we’ve seen the spike,” he said. “Everyone’s still doing the right stuff.”
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