By MIKE DONOGHUE,
Islander Staff Writer
MONTPELIER -- The State of Vermont on Monday unveiled a partial, but flawed list of town-by-town statistics showing the number of positive COVID-19 cases in each community.
The Vermont Health Department listed only 29 towns that have six or more positive cases.
The department failed to identify the communities that had zero positive reports.
Burlington, the state’s largest community, leads the way with 157 positive tests, the list notes.
The state also is reporting that Swanton had 44 positive tests – placing the Franklin County community for having the third most – three ahead of Essex, the second largest community in Vermont.
The problem is neighboring St. Albans Town, which hosts the Northwest State Correctional Facility with about three dozen inmates testing positive, is not included on the list of communities released.
Attempts to reach the Swanton Town Administrator or the chairman of the Selectboard for comment were unsuccessful.
Swanton Deputy Health Officer Lynn Billado told The Islander Monday that the state does give general daily updates, but the Franklin County community had received no word about its total positive COVID-19 tests.
She was among those that theorized that a large portion of the number attributed to Swanton probably actually belong to St. Albans Town. She was surprised to learn St. Albans Town was not listed.
Dr. Mark Levine, the health commissioner, had said on Friday that his department has reached out to communities with a large outbreak.
The Health Department reported St. Albans City had 19 cases, but it was unclear if some positive tests from St. Albans Town could be mixed in.
The state makes no mention of Grand Isle County, which reportedly has all three cases in one community.
Moving down into Chittenden County, the town of Colchester ranks fourth in the state with 38, followed by South Burlington with 37 and Milton, being in sixth place, with 24.
The Vermont Health Department did not provide any numbers for the deaths in each town. Some states like Connecticut have an interactive map that provides the number of cases, number of deaths and the per capita number.
The Vermont map did show that some ski area towns outside Chittenden County have seen a large numbers. Those include: Stowe/Cambridge/Waterbury, Woodstock/Hartford and Wilmington/Dover.
Levine’s boss, Human Services Secretary Mike Smith agreed that Vermont would take another look at the information and see if the missing data also could be provided.
The 29 communities listed by the Vermont Health Department account for 570 cases out of the 855 positive tests statewide. It was unclear where the other 285 cases are located.
By not providing towns with 1 to 5 positive tests, a clump of eight neighboring towns could end up with about 40 cases and Vermonters would be unaware of the problem.
It also fails to meet the statistic shared by other states. Connecticut has a interactive map that shows the actual number of cases by town and the number of deaths by towns, and the per capita rate
Gov. Phil Scott had said on Friday that the numbers would be rolled out on Monday. The list comes in response to ongoing inquiries by The Islander based on concerns from interested readers across three counties served by the newspaper.
Readers of The Islander in the Champlain Islands, down into Milton and Colchester and also into Franklin County have been asking why the town reports have been blocked by the state.
The Islander filed a formal request for the information under the Vermont Public Records Act.
Dr. Levine initially cited HIPPA as a reason not to release the public information but the federal law does not apply according to a couple of legal opinions. On Monday, he also mentioned personal privacy.
Levine had said earlier he thought the small populations of some towns might make it easy to identify those people with the deadly virus. Scott and Smith said they thought the numbers could be provided without a problem.
Health Department spokesman Ben Truman said Friday afternoon it remains a balancing act: “transparency and our obligation to protect an individual’s private health information.
The House of Representatives in Montpelier launched a tool this week to assist Vermonters unable to get through to the Department of Labor to resolve issues surrounding Unemployment Insurance and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said it is designed to help Vermonters in need at a critical time.
“Legislators are hearing concerns from Vermonters across the state about their inability to reach the Vermont Department of Labor via phone to resolve their unemployment claim issues. We are all deeply concerned that many Vermonters - many of whom live paycheck to paycheck - have gone six weeks without income. Vermonters need help now,” Johnson said.
“I deeply appreciate that Governor Scott and Treasurer (Beth) Pearce jumped in last week and sent $1,200 relief checks to Vermonters who applied, but had not yet been approved, for unemployment insurance. Legislators are hearing from community members that many people are still waiting,” Johnson said.
She said legislative leaders developed a plan for legislators to assist Vermonters and gather information for the overwhelmed Labor Department.
She said any Vermonter with outstanding case issues can contact their state legislators. Johnson said with very basic information, the state representative can help Vermonters get through to the Department of Labor to resolve your claim issues.
“We very much appreciate the Department of Labor employees and the Administration working so hard to resolve the backlogged cases. They had an impossible job from the start,” she said.
Processing claims in a timely fashion is a Herculean task on a 30-year-old computer system when unemployment jumps overnight from 2% to 20%.”
Legislator contact information is available at https://legislature.vermont.gov/.”