Coronavirus horror stories are spreading across the land, but so far Lamoille County hasn’t had any of its own.
A handful of county residents have been diagnosed with the virus, according to the Vermont Department of Health, but there has been no widespread contagion. Statewide, the state reported 293 cases out of 4,250 tests, and 13 deaths as of Tuesday.
Local hospitals and doctors are planning what to do when the virus arrives in full force, but it’s almost eerily quiet on the COVID-19 front. In fact, Copley Hospital says its biggest problem right now is that it has hardly any patients. The speculation is that people are staying away from the hospital either because they’re not sick, or because they want to stay away from people who are sick.
In the community, people have mobilized to help older people — who are particularly vulnerable to the virus — with grocery shopping and errands, and others have been making masks and scaring up other supplies for doctors and nurses.
Grocery stores have set up barriers and spacing so people and employees can keep their distance, and in-person retail sales have all but been banned by Gov. Phil Scott.
Schools remain closed, but teachers and children and their families are connecting online, and schools continue to provide food for children. Last week alone, the Lamoille North school district handed out 5,800 meals for kids.
In large measure, people are obeying the governor’s order to stay home, though there have been exceptions. For instance, hundreds of people congregated at Stowe Mountain Resort to clamber uphill and ski down. To prevent that close contact, the resort shut off all uphill access on Monday.
So far, the virus story in Lamoille County is being told in small chapters, with lots of individual effort and cooperation. Here’s a sampling.
What’s the plan?
It’s being written now.
Many people organizing the local response to the pandemic say that, while there’s a playbook for basic emergency preparedness, the plan is being rewritten for COVID-19.
“There’s not a plan that’s set in stone,” Lamoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux said. “We’re constantly finding out what’s happening across the country and the state, and trying to learn from that.”
Marcoux said that, in past pandemic training he’s been involved in, “maybe 25 percent of your staff can get sick.” And on top of that, a certain percentage of employees are going to take off work to care for loved ones.
For a department that provides primary police coverage to three towns and also dispatch services for a good portion of northern Vermont, the question becomes: “Can I run any aspect of this with a quarter of my people gone?”
— Tommy Gardner
Hospital worried about April
Copley Health Systems CEO Joe Woodin said there “is no one playbook” for hospitals when it comes to coronavirus.
“There are things that come out literally every couple of hours, whether from Montpelier or the White House or from our professional organizations,” he said. “To be honest, everyone has ideas, and we are learning to act like a team, to come together with ideas.”
Woodin said the hospital has stocked up on personal protective equipment for doctors and is running exercises and fine-tuning plans during this time, what might be the calm before the storm.
“This April is going to be the month,” he said. “This is going to be the hardest month.”
The staff meets twice a day, in the morning from 8:45 to 9:15 and again from 3:30 to 4 p.m. He said the team is constantly looking at forecasts and modeling, and the availability of personal protective equipment such as masks, rubber gloves and gowns.
He said he thinks hospitals are learning something about infectious diseases, much in the way that the HIV/AIDS epidemic 30 years ago taught medical professionals how to work around blood-borne diseases.
“We’re going to get through this, and we are going to figure out what to learn from it,” he said.
While state and federal guidelines focus on lightening the load at hospitals, Wooden says Copley’s problem is the opposite: The hospital load is unsettlingly light right now.
“Shockingly, we have seeing plummeting ER visits,” he said. “Nobody even remotely predicted that emergency departments would be decimated” by lack of patients.
Woodin sees two likely reasons for this.
On one hand, people might worry about unwittingly spreading the virus throughout the hospital if they go there. On the other hand, they might not visit the hospital when they should, for fear of contracting the virus.
He said hospital staff wonder and worry if people experiencing chest pain, light-headedness, dizziness, odd swelling and rashes, maybe even acute injuries are staying away from the ER because they’re afraid getting COVID-19. And this at a hospital that hasn’t reported a case yet, according to the state health department.
“It’s a curiosity that, in the middle of a clinical crisis, hospitals are furloughing people and laying off staff,” he said.
— Tommy Gardner
Health agency alert to what’s next
One of the region’s main health care providers, Community Health Services of Lamoille Valley, is working closely with local partners as the pandemic spreads.
“We’re having regular check-ins with most of our partners in Lamoille County,” Stuart May, the organization’s chief financial and operating officer, said this week. Since mid-March they’ve all been “touching base, keeping communication lines open to see how everyone is managing through this.”
Community Health Services is a federally qualified health center that operates several primary-care offices and other services. Unlike Copley Hospital, it does not provide inpatient, acute or emergency services, but the two organizations work closely together.
“Both organizations recognize we play a significant role in delivering care in the county,” May said. “If one organization got more taxed than the other, the other one would look to rise to the occasion.”
Since Community Health Services don’t provide in-patient medical care like a hospital does, it doesn’t typically stock ventilators — machines that breathe for people severely afflicted by the coronavirus, which attacks the lungs.
But May’s organization has plenty of N95 masks, surgical masks and other regular medical supplies.
“We’re in good shape,” May said, in terms of medical supplies.
Since the virus hasn’t mounted an invasion of local communities, “we’re mapping out at the 10,000-foot level,” May said, figuring out strategies to use as more and more cases spring up in the county.
Doctors at the Community Health Services medical offices are often the first professionals to encounter people who are sick, May said, and follow up with patients if they end up in the hospital.
May and his staff are also working with Copley to ensure a plentiful supply of clean scrubs. That way, any health care professional moving from one office to another can shed scrubs in one place and don clean scrubs at the other, “so they’re not taking viruses out off the practices.”
“Everything is about managing community transmission,” May said. Although the coronavirus has caused nightmarish conditions in many parts of the country, May believes the planning being done by Community Health Services and Copley Hospital will pay off when the virus comes, as it almost certainly will.
— Andrew Martin
Human services command center
Lamoille County’s human services sector is taking a page out of first responders’ playbook — even as police, rescue and fire squads are updating parts of it.
Greg Stefanski, Lamoille area manager of Capstone Community Action, is leading the effort to create an incident command center. It’s no coincidence that people tackling homelessness, substance use, mental health, domestic violence, restorative justice, food insecurity and poverty are calling it the same thing that emergency management people do.
“We’re using the same lingo that our first responders are using,” so everyone can communicate better, Stefanski said. “This warrants a system that is sophisticated and responds in the most efficient way possible.”
One crisis that popped up was the unexpected closure of Lamoille Community Food Share last week, “due to some concerns about their volunteers and some illnesses,” Stefanski said.
Capstone and other groups were able to figure it out, thanks to some food donations from the Skinny Pancake, and volunteers were able to get the food to people who needed it. Food Share has since reopened.
The problem “gave us a chance to test out how we would build up a backup system for food,” Stefanski said.
And that’s what led to a concerted effort to enact a more centralized command center.
He said all the leaders in the social services sector “recognized that we’re going to be stronger together,” but having 44 people at the same table was tantamount to mob rule — albeit a mob with decidedly do-good tendencies.
“Which is awesome, but it also showed we don’t have community-wide systems for planning, sorting out logistics, administrative tasks and, the most important thing, deploying those resources,” he said. “We’ve got all the parts and pieces. Right now, the question is what’s the best container to hold them.”
Stefanski said concern about the coronavirus crisis is two-fold. There’s the fear of actually getting COVID-19, and there’s the financial impact, and that’s among a population already vulnerable to illness and poverty.
Throw social distancing into the mix, and it compounds already difficult missions.
“This means you’re going to have people who are suffering alone,” he said. “And we can’t just go and give people a hug and a kiss and say I love you and I care about you.”
— Tommy Gardner
Lamoille County Planning
As its name suggests, the Lamoille County Planning Commission is working toward a coronavirus plan, and is cherry-picking the best parts from work already done.
Seth Jensen, the commission’s head planner, said there are playbooks for dealing with disasters such as floods, but, aside from some work during the H1N1 outbreak, this is largely new ground.
And instead of looking primarily to the Department of Public Safety, Vermont Emergency Management or FEMA for guidance, everyone’s taking their cues from the Health Department.
“Most of our emergency response planning and hazardous mitigation is focused on natural disasters, where you’re mobilizing fire and rescue, maybe congregating people in an emergency shelter, really, all of the things you don’t do in this circumstance,” Jensen said. “But it’s still super important for people to be coordinated.
Tasha Wallis, the commission’s executive director, said the trick to “continuity of operations” is to “find out how to proceed without making human contact.”
Wallis said the planning commission is working with municipalities on how to adapt their regular business, things like signing checks or paying tax bills or registering dogs. That can’t really be done in person right now, so the commission is helping with systems that will enable that kind of thing remotely.
It’s also helping make sure towns can ensure the safety of their essential workers, such as public works and public safety employees.
“I think, essentially, the plan is working with the plans that we have and listening and acting on the guidance” of state and federal agencies, Jensen said.
Jensen is also keeping an eye on public meetings.
“How do you make that work when you can’t have public gatherings?” he asked.
Wallis said the community and the state also have to figure out how to make the huge federal stimulus package work. Vermont expects to receive about $2 billion of the $2.2 trillion in funds.
“But how do you engage in the types of things that are supposed to be stimulated, while in the midst of this crisis?” she wondered.
— Tommy Gardner
Green Up Day postponed
Roadside trash will stay put for at least an extra month.
In an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus, Green Up Day has been postponed from May 2 to May 30.
This is the 50th anniversary of Green Up Day — launched in tandem with the first Earth Day in 1970 — when Vermonters scour roadsides and riverbanks to pick up trash discarded throughout the year.
On May 30, organizers will work to make sure Vermonters will be safe from the virus during the cleanup.
“We will be ramping up our communications around coronavirus safety, wearing gloves, protection from ticks and sharp objects, and other things for the next eight weeks,” said Kate Alberghini, Green Up Vermont’s executive director.
Green Up Day, by nature, is an activity of social distancing as residents of all ages fan out to clean up miles of Vermont roads. Trash drop-off locations can be managed with little to no contact, in keeping with CDC guidelines.
— Josh O’Gorman
Help feed health care workers
Stowe To Go, in partnership with Edelweiss Mountain Deli, will deliver donated meals to health care providers and emergency service personnel.
Stowe To Go will include a thank you note with each delivery, including the name of the person who bought the meal. Donors can remain anonymous if they wish.
For every 10 meals purchased, Edelweiss Mountain Deli will donate two additional meals. It is now preparing meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Meals will be delivered on a rotating basis to providers at Copley Hospital and its many departments), and to other local health care providers and emergency personnel.
— Josh O’Gorman
Meals on Wheels to deliver
Meals on Wheels of Lamoille County will continue to deliver food to hungry residents.
Volunteers and staff will continue to deliver meals on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Meals are placed on doorsteps and outside at group housing buildings. There is no contact with recipients.
Volunteers and staff are monitoring their temperatures, using extreme handwashing and sanitizing methods, and wearing clean gloves at each delivery and during food preparation.
As of Tuesday, each delivery contains two emergency frozen meals. These meals are intended to help with dwindling home-pantry supplies. The number of emergency meals will increase as needs continue to rise.
In addition, 15 volunteers make wellness calls every Monday. These conversations help stave off loneliness and gives Meals on Wheels a better idea about the needs of recipients.
During the past two weeks, the service reports a 10 percent increase in new people signing p, a 25-percent increase in calls seeking food and a 45 percent increase in purchases of food and supplies.
The service also reports a 50 percent increase in new volunteers.
To donate/volunteer: mowlc.org.
— Josh O’Gorman
Guidance issued for businesses
The state Agency of Commerce and Community Development has issued guidance for specific business sectors to comply with Gov. Phil Scott’s “stay at home” order.
The guidance should help businesses understand what parts of their in-person operations are defined as critical to public health and safety or economic and national security.
Businesses that are not exempt can keep working remotely.
“We are asking businesses to take a really hard look at their in-person operations and make decisions for the protection of Vermonters’ lives during this public health crisis,” said Lindsay Kurrle, secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
For guidance: bit.ly/virusbusinesguidance.
— Josh O’Gorman
Serving up meals in Lamoille
It’s possible that schools in every Vermont school district — including Lamoille North, which covers Belvidere, Cambridge, Eden, Hyde Park, Johnson and Waterville — could become overflow centers if the coronavirus runs wild.
However, they haven’t received that designation yet, Superintendent Cat Gallagher said. She and her staff are working with local health officials and town governments to be ready for any eventuality, while also concentrating on the here and now.
Of course, all Vermont schools are closed until fall, so the here and now deals with students’ needs while they’re hunkering down at home.
One focus has been getting information about mental and community health agencies and services to the students and their families.
Another has been nutrition. The district delivers two meals a day to most students, Gallagher said, and last week alone served up more than 5,800 meals to students learning at home.
“That is going beautifully,” Gallagher said about the food program. “We want to serve our kids, not just academically but also their social and emotional well-being.”
This week, Lamoille North leaders were deciding whether to close all school playgrounds in Lamoille North. Playgrounds are popular gathering spots for children and families; however, the virus can stay alive on playground equipment for extended periods. Some districts, including Lamoille South, have already closed their playgrounds.
“It’s not that we want people to stop having fun,” Gallagher said. “We just want them to stop congregating.”
— Andrew Martin
Cambridge adjusts responses
Cambridge officials are reviewing how they will respond to emergencies in the coronavirus crisis.
“All of our intertown agencies have been working very closely together,” said Dan St. Cyr, the town’s emergency management director.
First and foremost, firefighters and EMS responders have postponed all events that require people to gather together.
“We’ve canceled our fire training nights and our rescue training nights,” St. Cyr said.
Second, responders are reviewing the steps they can take at an emergency to limit the spread of the virus.
Check Cambridge Emergency Management on Facebook and Twitter.
— Josh O’Gorman