Months into the pandemic, Vermont’s governor says the state is “the envy of the nation,” with little more than 1,100 confirmed covid-19 infections and 56 deaths. Perhaps most remarkable is that Vermont has been relatively spared the effects of the disease even though a huge swath of the nation’s cases are mere hours from its borders; neighboring New York and Massachusetts have approximately half a million confirmed cases between them, and more than 37,000 deaths.
Vermont had feared the coronavirus would ravage its large elderly population, and colleges drained hockey rinks for emergency bedspace. But emergency room visits are down, hardly anyone is hospitalized, and until Thursday the state had not recorded a virus-related death since May 28.
Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, attributed the state’s success thus far to swiftly declaring an emergency at the outset and quickly shutting down businesses and schools. Crucially, state officials also closed restaurants and bars before St. Patrick’s Day — typically a day of revelry in New England — after watching the deadly virus spread in the Seattle area. Officials sheltered homeless people in motels and campers, shuttered hotels, and ordered people to stay home. Anyone visiting or returning to Vermont had to quarantine for 14 days.
“We took a lot of steps early, and we didn’t waste a lot of time, and Vermonters accepted that,” Scott said at a recent news conference. “And they also complied with all the measures. So, I think that resulted in us having very low rates and put us in the position we’re in today.”
Researchers say it is too soon to tell what worked for Vermont. While the governor took some early steps, his stay-at-home order did not take effect until after orders by Massachusetts and New York. And he also did not mandate face masks in public, though he wore one.
Vermont had many other factors going for it: It is one of the nation’s healthiest and least-populated states, with 620,000 residents scattered mostly in small towns tucked into thick forests of maples, birches and pines. There are no subways or international hubs, and neighbors are easy to avoid, with 68 people per square mile, compared with 27,000 in New York City. Burlington, the state’s largest city, has just 42,000 people and sits on Lake Champlain in the far northern reaches of the state, closer to Montreal than to either Albany or Boston.
Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the coronavirus’s trajectory through Vermont stands out because the number of cases spiked in early April and then fell sharply, a sign that “they did something right.”
“Most states don’t look like that,” she said.
Vermont struggled at first with outbreaks at some nursing homes, which state health officials say account for approximately half the state’s deaths. But interviews with state officials, physicians, and residents describe a concerted statewide effort to fight a virus they could not see at the start because testing was not widely available.
Politicians united to urge residents to stay home, teaming Scott, a stock-car racing Republican, with liberal lions such as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who ended his presidential campaign while obeying the state’s stay-at home order. Hospitals coordinated in weekly conference calls, and the University of Vermont Medical Center dispatched health-care workers as reinforcements to an afflicted nursing facility. Burlington city officials worked with an amateur theater group and a teddy bear manufacturer to churn out 22,000 homemade masks.
“We didn’t let our cases get out of hand before we said, ‘Oh my god, we’ve got to do something,’ ” Health Commissioner Mark Levine said.
But officials said their efforts would have failed if Vermonters had ignored their warnings.
Vermont is a mostly liberal state that “marches to its own drummer,” as Brookline Town Clerk Gaetano “Guy” Tanza put it. Residents cherish the environment and the right to own guns. Officials said infection data and traffic patterns showed that most Vermont residents stayed home — a decision they said undoubtedly saved lives.
“Ultimately, they’re the ones that deserve the credit for making this happen,” Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said.
Brookline, home to 500 people on the banks of the West River, near the New Hampshire border, has not logged a single covid-19 case.
Tanza said the age of Vermont’s population — nearly 1 in 5 is elderly, one of the highest shares in the United States — made people more cautious, knowing they were more likely to have serious effects from the coronavirus if they got it.
“I know a lot of people who just would not go anywhere because of that fear,” he said. “Nobody wants to die.”
While he misses “wings night” at the Elks Lodge, he said he feels much safer dining at home.
“I’m 76,” he said. “I don’t need any aggravation.”
Many residents of Vermont’s small towns say staying home is not such a hardship because they usually stock up for the region’s harsh winters or have experience living off the land. Many residents raise their own chickens, pull bass out of the many rivers, and grow their own vegetables.
Sandy Sherman, a 54-year-old medical assistant, conducts coronavirus tests all day in Brattleboro, but after work she retreats to her modest home in Brookline, a “slice of heaven” on a few acres where she can swim in her pool and tend to her hives of honeybees.
Sherman cannot see her neighbors from her house. But she can hear them. Rifle shots rang out in the distance as she spoke in her front yard. Oh, that’s just her neighbors taking target practice.
“Social distance? Oh, okay,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Geez, I’ve been doing that now for a year. It was way ahead of the covid thing.”
Some warn that Vermont’s numbers — like the rest of the world’s — were never an accurate picture of the virus’s reach because of an early shortage of test kits, perhaps creating the false impression that the coronavirus skipped them.
The state says there are no covid cases in Guilford, a town of 2,100 people less than an hour’s drive from the state-run veterans home in Holyoke, Mass., where at least 74 people died.
But word travels in a small town: The manager of the country store had heard of at least five suspected cases; a local organic farmer knew of a sixth.
“We’re living proof,” said Amit Sharma, 43, confirming that his family of five had suspected the coronavirus in March, but only one member was tested — and tested positive. Others felt sick, but Sharma said a nurse at the local hospital said there weren’t enough tests to go around.
The overwhelmingly white state also did not initially track cases by race and ethnicity, spurring calls from the state’s NAACP chapter to collect the information. Once Vermont began tracking the data, it showed worrisome disparities. African Americans are just 1.4 percent of the state’s population in the census, but the Vermont Department of Health said Friday they account for 7.8 percent of coronavirus infections, or 86 cases.
In Ira, a landlocked town surrounded by communities with covid-19 cases just over the New York state border, residents say they took precautions because that’s how it is in Ira: People take care of each other. Volunteers fight fires, plant one another’s vegetable gardens and clear fallen trees from roofs after a storm.
“People here are very sensible. They’re very kind,” said Sara Meling, 74, a retired marketing executive. “There’s a huge sense of community even though we don’t have a downtown. People leave you alone, but if your car is in a ditch, they’re there in seconds.”
Vanquishing the coronavirus made it all the sweeter when the townspeople reunited for the state’s annual “Green Up Day” in late May to pick up litter from the roadside. They gathered in a drizzle outside Town Hall. Everyone wore masks. And they replaced the potluck with bottles of water and chips. A sign out front said “Practice Social Distancing Stay One Cow Apart.”
Their laughter faded when Matthew Loftus, 45, skidded up on a bicycle, cheerily offering to help. He had a thick New York accent.
“Would you like a mask?” offered massage therapist Catherine “Cacky” Ayer, 70.
Hoffman, the 79-year-old who said he wasn’t worried about the virus, darted away from the man and whispered, half-joking, “Get out of here!”
Loftus, a flight attendant visiting an aunt and uncle who live in Ira, kept his distance from the group, and organizers handed him trash bags and sent him on his way.
“I’m public enemy number one,” he said to somewhat nervous laughter.
Ira’s unexpected visitor from hard-hit New York City was a sobering reminder of what Vermont faces as it reopens its cities and towns to the world — including potentially millions of tourists who visit for summer escapes and winter ski vacations.
College students with summer off-campus leases are already trickling back into Burlington, which is offering them a “supportive quarantine” — such as groceries, a restaurant gift card and a free coronavirus test — to ensure they stay home for the first two weeks. More than 100 have signed up, the mayor said, and at least one student was infected.
Scott has slowly peeled back restrictions in recent weeks, such as allowing retail shops to reopen, gatherings of up to 25 people, and limited dining in restaurants. Scott, who is not a supporter of President Trump, also has said he would not quash protests in Vermont over the killing of George Floyd and called a recent crackdown on demonstrators in Washington D.C., “an affront to everything we stand for.”
Officials say they expect new outbreaks as Vermont reopens — such as one in recent days that infected more than 80 adults and children in the city of Winooski and adjacent communities including Burlington.
But officials say the state is in a strong position to fight the virus because it did not overwhelm the health care system. Hospitals were not swamped with infected people. Doctors and nurses are healthy. The state is equipped to do hundreds of coronavirus tests each week to identify the infected, trace their contacts and counsel them to quarantine — as they did in Winooski — to prevent the virus from spreading.
Scott said Wednesday he believes Vermont’s approach “has saved a lot of lives.”
“We’ve just done the best we can,” he said. “Have we done everything right? Probably not. But I think we’ve done more right than wrong.”