FAIR HAVEN — A COVID-19 cluster here has grown from two cases to 12, state officials said Wednesday.
Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine first mentioned the cluster’s existence at Gov. Phil Scott’s Monday news conference, saying there had been two cases at a “Rutland County work site” and that subsequent testing was under way. It was mentioned as one of “several small investigations” the state was conducting into COVID-19 cases, with another mentioned at a “residence” in Windham County.
On Tuesday, Deputy State Epidemiologist Laura Ann Nicolai said the number of cases in the Rutland County cluster was up to 11, and at the governor’s press conference Wednesday, Levine put the number at 12 and identified the location as Fair Haven.
Fair Haven Select Board Chairman Robert Richards said the news gave him pause because it seemed to him many people in town were failing to take precautions.
“I think people should take this seriously and wear their masks,” he said. “It doesn’t seem that people believe it’s happening. That may change now.”
State officials have declined to provide any other information identifying the company running the work site because it would then serve to identify individuals in quarantine.
“We have to be the protector of personal health information and have respect for people who did not choose to become ill with this virus,” Levine said.
Richards said that while he had heard rumors, he did not know the identity of the business, adding that he was frustrated by the state’s refusal to disclose it.
“These people might have interacted with everyone else in town, but we don’t know,” he said. “Do they come in and get lunch in town? Do they go get ice cream cones? ... I guess they’re taking HIPAA to an extreme but I wonder if the greater good wouldn’t be if we could figure out if they’ve been to different businesses, if they’ve come into town.”
Richards said the secrecy also prevents the town from coming to the business’ aid.
“We want to help them any way we can,” he said. “We can’t if we don’t know what we’re dealing with.”
Levine said that there was no concern that the business might pose a threat to public health. He said he did not know whether it was continuing to operate.
According to a post on the town Facebook page, free COVID-19 testing will be available to the public from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the town green.
“I’m going to get tested just to see,” Richards said. “I haven’t had any symptoms. I haven’t had anything. It’d be nice to know.”
Nicolai said state officials were in the process of interviewing the newly identified patients for contact tracing and would conduct further testing as needed.
“We do not have a definite number yet of individuals who are potential contacts,” she said.
This means it is too early to say whether the outbreak has been contained, Nicolai said. Levine said they were also working with the New York State Department of Health to determine if any of the workers lived across the border. He said any that did would be counted among New York’s statistics
Nicolai said they believed the infection was spread within the workplace.
“We can’t say definitively where a transmission occurred, but that is our impression,” she said, adding there was no indication that the company had failed to observe health and safety protocols. “To my knowledge, they were following recommendations. I am not aware of any infractions.”
Levine echoed the latter comment Wednesday.
In the meantime, Nicolai said the Department of Health is offering the same advice it has all along: Avoid large gatherings; wash your hands frequently; take precautions and get tested if you have symptoms.
“We would just like to encourage everyone to be aware,” she said.
Rutland Mayor David Allaire said late Tuesday that news was not enough to give him pause about moves to reopen the city following state guidance.
“Until I know more about where and what the different circumstances are, it does not,” he said. “I think people, generally speaking, are taking precautions. That’s not everybody and you’re not ever going to get everybody ... but I think for the most part, and the numbers bear this out, we’ve been doing the right thing.”
Richards said he expects the cluster to be on the agenda when the Select Board has its regular meeting Tuesday, but he was not sure what the town can do.
The state has given municipalities the authority to require use of face masks in businesses, but Richards said he did not see the political will for such a move.
“We’ll talk about that, but I would be surprised if there were mandatory masks,” he said. “It’s kind of funny — the state gives you all these options, but they don’t do it themselves. It’d be a much easier thing if they did it from the top down.”
The governor and Levine have both said that small, localized outbreaks are to be expected as the state begins slowly reopening, but that they will not necessitate a reversal of the reopening process if they can be contained.