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'Our Bubble Is Popped': Apparent Outbreak Puts Manchester, Vt. Area On Edge

A sign reading manchester medical center
Howard Weiss-Tisman
The Manchester Medical Center reported 42 people tested positive for coronavirus on Tuesday. Residents and businesses in the region are now worried about having to close things back down.

A pop-up testing site for the new coronavirus was set up in Manchester Wednesday. This comes after more than 40 people tested positive for COVID-19 at the local urgent care clinic earlier this week.

Now hundreds of people throughout the region are waiting on their test results to find out just how widespread Vermont’s latest outbreak might be.

The news that the Manchester area might have a COVID-19 outbreak started spreading around town this past weekend.

"Just because it hasn't happened in our bubble yet doesn't mean that it's not going to. And apparently now our bubble is popped. So get over it. Help each other out." — Rachel Houlihan-Peters, Londonderry

First, there was a report of five unofficial positive tests. And then a dozen. And by Tuesday, Manchester Medical Center reported on its Facebook page that 42 people tested positive at their urgent care office. State officials said that while they were still verifying the tests, they were treating the matter as an outbreak.

Jim Mirenda lives in nearby East Dorset, and he says now everyone’s holding their breath and waiting to see if the new coronavirus has settled into southwestern Vermont.

“We’re a destination,” Mirenda said. “There’s a lot of businesses either opened, or trying to re-open. And I think the community would like to see them succeed. And you know, we want to keep moving forward, which is a good reason why we need to know what’s happening with this outbreak.”

A man wearing a face scarf with a hat.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Jim Mirenda stands for a portrait. He said he's going to lay low for the next week or two as more information comes out about an apparent outbreak in the Manchester, Vermont area.

Manchester is fully dependent on the tourist economy, and with its outlet stores, access to the Green Mountain National Forest, and nice hotels and restaurants, Mirenda says the town was just starting to get its footing back as the weather broke and businesses started to re-open.

But one of Mirenda’s kids has a compromised immune system. And so he says while it’s been nice feeling like life was starting to get back to normal, he’ll probably lay low for a little while.

“We have been out and about in the community for the last month or two, but I think for the next week or two, until we know what’s going on, we’re gonna try to stay hunkered down,” he said.

"We have been out and about in the community for the last month or two, but I think for the next week or two, until we know what's going on, we're gonna try to stay hunkered down." — Jim Mirenda, East Dorset

Even though it’s unclear at this point just how widespread the virus outbreak might be, summer activities that were just starting back up have been tamped back down again.

Burr and Burton Academy canceled its field hockey camp, and the popular swimming spot at the Dorset Quarry was closed off.

Northshire Bookstore also closed its doors for a few days. The store is right across the street from the medical clinic, and co-owner Chris Morrow said people were coming into the air-conditioned store while they were waiting for their virus test.

(A note of disclosure: Northshire Bookstore is a VPR underwriter).

A sign explaining Northshire Book store is closed for COVID.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Northshire Bookstore closed for several days this week over worries about an outbreak of the coronavirus.

And it all kind of freaked him out.

“The staff was nervous, and I was nervous, so we just felt like we just didn’t want to have the doors open... just to be on the safe side,” Morrow said.

It was a tough call: At this point, a place like Northshire Bookstore needs every single dollar it can get.

And if this really turns out to be an outbreak in Manchester, and Morrow has to shut his place down again for any length of time, it’s not going to be easy.

“July and August are typically our second and third busiest months,” he said. “So, we’re managing okay, but if there’s another protracted shutdown, it’s going to be really, really devastating. So, I’m just hoping for the best.”

" ... if there's another protracted shutdown, it's going to be really, really devastating." — Chris Morrow, Northshire Bookstore co-owner

Along with the testing in Manchester Wednesday, there was another testing site set up just up the road in Londonderry.

Rachel Houlihan-Peters lives in Londonderry, and she got an email from her kid’s camp last weekend saying that someone at the camp tested positive, and her child might have been exposed. So she took him to be tested.

“It’s horrifying, to be honest with you,” Houlihan-Peters said. “To have my child be potentially exposed to it, it kind of sets your anxiety right through the roof, you know. I mean, it’s nerve wracking.”

Houlihan-Peters says there’s a lot of back-and-forth between Manchester and Londonderry and the other hill towns in the area.

A red sign saying dorset quarry is closed.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Dorset Quarry is among the local spots closed in the Manchester area of Vermont due to an apparent outbreak of the coronavirus.

And since this weekend’s initial outbreak, there’s been plenty of ugly comments on social media about out-of-staters visiting the area, and whether people are ignoring social distancing rules and failing to quarantine and wear masks.

Houlihan-Peters says it’s been upsetting to see so much division, especially at a time when she says the community should be coming together and supporting each other.

“You kind of feel like a leper. You know, I mean, are the pitchforks going to be coming to my house, and people protesting and telling me that I must have done something wrong, and this is all our fault?” she said. “This isn’t what people do. We don’t ostracize people that got sick with a virus that everybody is catching. Just because it hasn’t happened in our bubble yet doesn’t mean that it’s not going to. And apparently now our bubble is popped. So get over it. Help each other out. Be kind to each other. There’s no reason for any of it.”

The state is expected to have more information about the potential outbreak in southwestern Vermont at Gov. Phil Scott’s press conference Friday.

Updated 10:25 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect there are hundreds, not dozens, of people in the region waiting to hear back on COVID-19 test results.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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