An outbreak of COVID-19 in Vermont’s most diverse city has highlighted gaps in the health department’s translation services, according to Health Commissioner Mark Levine.
There at least 34 reported cases of the disease connected to the outbreak in Winooski, a small, densely populated city that is home to many New American families.
“There may be populations in the city that actually didn’t understand what physical distancing is,” Levine said during a press conference on Friday. “[That] didn’t understand all the helpful information the Health Department tries to get our population to understand and comply with.”
During the press conference, Virginie Diambou, a member of the Vermont Multilingual Coronavirus Task Force, asked city and state officials to provide more resources to members of that community.
“One of the reason why people are so infected, maybe because they don’t have the information,” Diambou said. “A lot of people don’t speak English, they speak their own languages.”
Winooski City Manager Jesse Baker said she recognizes the city has struggled to provided translation services and was working with the state to do more.
“We're really looking to our community partners to help inform that,” Baker said. “We know this is an issue.”
Vermont, like the rest of the country, has racial disparities in its COVID-19 infection rate. According to Seven Days, the majority of the 34 reported cases in Winooski are among black and Asian individuals.
During Friday’s press conference, the Health Department didn’t comment on the demographic makeup of the cases, but state epidemiologist Pasty Kelso said the cases are spread across the city.
“There are multiple households,” she said. “They’re across the city, they’re fairly well spread out, they’re not just in one spot.”
During his press conference Friday, Gov. Phil Scott said the outbreak was contained to "one network of families."
The Health Department has said the outbreak is not associated with any elder care or congregate living facilities in the city.
Levine, the health commissioner, noted that the health department does have some translated materials and interpretative services and those have been avaliable through the pandemic.
“I don't want you to get the impression that an outbreak occurred because nobody knew what was going on,” Levine said. “Outbreaks do occur. That is the important point to remember.”
The sudden jump in COVID-19 infections in Vermont due to the Winooski outbreak is an outlier in a weeks-long trend of dwindling case numbers.
And despite the outbreak in Winooski, Scott said he was comfortable moving forward with additional economic reopenings. The governor said starting on June 8, resturants could offer limited indoor dining, and he lifted the two-week quaratine requirement for some out-of-state travelers.
As of Friday, Winooski restaurants and business are still allowed to be open as long as they follow the current state guidelines.
Levine said residents should make sure they’re adhering the health department’s normal guidance: wear cloth masks in public, keep at least six feet away from others and regularly wash hands.
As of Thursday, the health department has conducted 436 tests at a pop-up site at the O’Brien Community Center. The department will be offering testing at the same location all next week, and Levine encouraged any city resident to sign up, even if they don’t have symptoms.