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Vermont Prepares For Projected Increase In COVID-19 Cases As Public Schools, Colleges Reopen

Gov. Phil scott, seen here at his media briefing Friday, says Vermont will likely see a modest increase in infection rates as schools and colleges reopen for in-person learning.
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Gov. Phil scott, seen here at his media briefing Friday, says Vermont will likely see a modest increase in infection rates as schools and colleges reopen for in-person learning.

Vermont is forecasting a spike in COVID-19 cases over the next month as colleges and public schools reopen for in-person learning, but state officials say they expect infection rates to remain well below the threshold that would trigger heightened public health concerns.

New modeling from the Department of Financial Regulation indicates that average daily case counts will jump from fewer than 10 to nearly 20 by late September.

Chart showing case growth for COVID-19 as schools reopen in Vermont.
Credit Vermont Department of Financial Regulation, courtesy
The latest modeling predictions for case growth in Vermont, from the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation.

Commissioner of Financial Regulation Michael Pieciak says the projected increase in cases is largely attributable to the 73,000 public school students who will be returning to Vermont classrooms next week, and the 21,000 students heading back to college and university campuses.

“Things that factor into this forecast include … the communities across Vermont being more mobile, parents being able to go back to work potentially, parents being able to run more errands and be more mobile because their children are back in school,” Pieciak said during Gov. Phil Scott’s media briefing Friday.

More from VPR: Poll Finds Vermonters Split Over Reopening Public Schools This Fall

Pieciak, however, characterized the projected increase in infection rates as “mild,” and said Vermont is on track to retain its status as having the lowest per capita infection rate in the United States.

Colleges and universities located in Vermont have so far administered more than 27,000 COVID-19 tests to returning students. Those tests have yielded 33 confirmed cases among students.

"We don't expect to see any new big spikes on college cases due to the reopening." - Patsy Kelso, state epidemiologist

“We’ve had a small number of cases, but they’ve been detected early, and the colleges are doing a great job of identifying those cases, getting them isolated, and ensuring that their close contacts have quarantine housing available,” State Epidemiologist Patsy Kelso said Friday. “We don’t expect to see any new big spikes on college cases due to the reopening.”

Health officials say they’re equally optimistic about prospects for a successful reopening of public schools.

More from VPR: School Starts In Four Weeks. The State Is Scrambling To Set Up Broadband For Students

Scott warned Friday that Vermont will undoubtedly see case counts rise when students return to kindergarten-through-12th grade classrooms next week.

“We know this isn’t easy for anyone,” Scott said. “There will be bumps in the road, maybe big ones. And there will be cases tied to schools.”

But Scott said districts have developed plans to prevent the virus from getting into school buildings, and to contain its spread if it does.

Governor faces criticism over school reopenings

Scott has come under fire over the last week from political opponents and Vermont's teachers union for his handling of the school reopening issue.

The Vermont-NEA issued a “report card” Thursday that gave the Republican governor a D+ on “overall preparation” for the return to school.

More from VPR: 'Whatever They Tell Us, We're Doing': School Support Staff Prepare For Reopening

The Vermont-NEA was especially critical of Scott’s failure to institute a “coordinated statewide approach” to school reopening plans.

Districts across the state have adopted widely varying reopening plans, which range from fulltime in-person learning to entirely remote teaching.

"We know this isn't easy for anyone. There will be bumps in the road, maybe big ones. And there will be cases tied to schools." - Gov. Phil Scott

Scott’s Democratic challenger in the fall election, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, said Tuesday that Scott should have used his executive authority to harmonize reopening plans across district lines.

Scott said Friday that he wanted to give district administrators the “flexibility” to adopt plans that worked for their specific communities.

“You can’t push too hard because we don’t want to have this trepidation continue, and we don’t want it to be a political fight,” Scott said. “It’s really about what’s best for the kids.”

Rutland County outbreak

The Vermont Department of Health says it’s now traced 17 confirmed cases of COVID-19 to a party at the Summit Lodge in Killington last month.

More from VPR: Killington Party At The Center Of New COVID-19 Outbreak

Kelso said 11 people who contracted the disease attended the party, and that six other cases are “due to subsequent transmission from someone who was at the party.”

“There might be some community spread in the coming weeks, and we understand that community members might be anxious,” Kelso said Friday. “Multiple testing opportunities are available this week in the Rutland and Killington areas.”

Kelso said that of the 49 people who attended the party, the Department of Health has been able to contact 34.

More from Vermont Edition: Vermont Health Official Discusses Community Outbreak In Rutland County

She said 15 people who attended the event live outside Vermont.

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Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld.

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