For most of the pandemic, Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom had relatively few cases of COVID-19. But last month, that changed.
Until a few weeks ago, Jason Brueck felt relatively safe from COVID-19. He’s a resident of Newport, a father of three, and runs an outdoor learning program in Derby. Taking precautions for the camp he ran over the summer felt surreal.
“Behaving like, with masks and all this other kind of stuff, and the sanitizing... you're in the middle of a pandemic when it's essentially not happening around you,” he said.
From the onset of the pandemic until mid-October, only 65 positive cases of COVID-19 had been identified in the Northeast Kingdom, according to the Vermont Department of Health. Six cases in Essex County, 35 in Caledonia, and 24 in Orleans.
“There was a period of time,” Brueck speculated, “maybe in May, where I felt like if you had analyzed the number of traffic fatalities we'd have had in Orleans County compared to the number of positive COVID cases, the traffic fatalities probably would have been more.”
He’s almost right. There was one traffic fatality there in May. And one reported COVID case.
But now, that’s changing. Case counts have been on the rise statewide, and for the first time in the pandemic, that includes the Kingdom.
In November, over 100 positive coronavirus cases were identified in Orleans County, where Brueck lives. More than 200 cases were identified in the Northeast Kingdom as a whole. Even Essex County, which previously averaged less than a single case per month, saw its case count nearly quadruple in November.
And rising cases have consequences: “It feels like we're on a precipice of like, real long-term structural damage,” said Katherine Sims, the outgoing director of the Northeast Kingdom Collaborative.
The Kingdom has the highest percentage of households without reliable broadband in Vermont. Affordable housing can be hard to find there. Many people hold more than one job. Households live in higher rates of poverty than the rest of the state. Rates of food insecurity are also high.
And, Sims said, “That was all pre-COVID. And as we know, [the pandemic has] just exaggerated and highlighted those structural inequities.”
These problems are by no means unique to the region. But in many cases, they are worse there, leaving the Kingdom particularly vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic.
Alexandra Bannach is a pediatrician at North Country Hospital in Newport, and she worries most about the ripple effects school closures could have in the region. As cases go up, more teachers are likely to be out of school.
“If you have two or three teachers out because they're, you know, under investigation or quarantining or sick, that can be what tips one of our small schools to having to close because they don't have the staff to support the teaching in person,” Bannach said.
And if schools close, Bannach worries many kids would lose reliable access to food. At some schools in the Kingdom, more than 80% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch.
And in a place where 13 to 32% of households are underserved by broadband, remote classes are not always an option. Students could fall behind, or lose access to school’s emotional support. If kids are home, child care — if there’s even access to it — becomes more complicated.
“We have a lot of families where we have both parents working full-time and sometimes more than one job, and they don't have the means to supervise the kids at home,” Bannach explained.
This second wave of the pandemic is different from the first for economic reasons, too, said Katherine Sims of the NEK Collaborative. During the shutdown this spring, “we were both less at risk for actual exposure to the virus, and supported while our economy contracted,” Sims said.
Financial stimulus from state and federal governments helped those who were unemployed, self-employed, and ran small businesses. Jason Brueck got a PPP loan to support his outdoor learning program.
Sims says that money has helped the region weather COVID better than it might have otherwise, “but that's drying up right at the time when cases are peaking.”
It’s hard to say with certainty why the region avoided the pandemic as it tore through surrounding parts of Vermont and New Hampshire earlier this year. In the eyes of North Country Hospital pediatrician Dr. Bannach, the lack of cases early on gave the Kingdom a false sense of security.
“I think for anybody in the health care community,” she said, “it was evident that it was only a question of time.”
That time has come. And just as it’s hard to say why there were so few cases in the Kingdom for so long, now it’s hard to say why there are suddenly so many more. State officials have said some of the increase in Essex and Orleans counties is due to their proximity to the New Hampshire border.
And, like elsewhere in the state, some of the increase can likely be attributed to health guidelines that have gone unheeded, or unheard altogether.
Jason Brueck, the father and business owner in Newport, knows there are several places where mask-wearing isn’t the norm. And it can be awkward: he'll walk into a business wearing a mask and see “the gal behind the counter is scrambling to try and find hers 'cause she sees that I've got mine on, and she probably should be wearing it and doesn't want to make me feel bad,” he said.
Along with the worst national surge of the virus yet, the dark, cold days of winter are upon us. Brueck said the difficulty of this time of year is, in some ways, what holds people together.
“Like at some point, your butt’s going to be stuck in a ditch, a snowbank, and you're going to need your neighbor to pull you out,” he said. And masks or no masks, COVID or no COVID, that isn’t going to change.
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