Coronavirus: Why have dozens of COVID-19 cases popped up in Winooski?

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WINOOSKI – Puru Nepal stood near the end of a line running the length of the parking lot at the O’Brien Community Center for a pop-up clinic Friday morning, waiting to be tested for the novel coronavirus.

The temperature had already passed 80 degrees just after 10 a.m., and there was no shade to be found. Nepal worried about his wife and two young children waiting in the car.

“Yes, they will be tested, but it’s a long line,” Nepal said. “I don’t know how the kids are doing in the car. We may have to come back on Monday.”

Winooski is at the center of an outbreak of 34 cases of COVID-19, prompting the Department of Health to offer free testing for two weeks at the community center. Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of the health department, held a press conference, together with town officials, outside City Hall on Friday morning before the pop-up clinic opened.

Levine said he understood the uncertainty people “must be feeling” hearing the news of the outbreak of COVID-19 in Winooski.

“First, I want to let you know this could happen anywhere,” Levine said. “COVID-19 has circulated all over the world, across the country and into our state because it’s new to humans. We have little or no immunity. It easily makes us sick and easily passes from one person to another.”

Levine also said the outbreak in Winooski is not unexpected, especially as Gov. Phil Scott continues to open up more sectors of the economy. He said so far 436 people have been tested in Winooski for the coronavirus, meaning there are likely more cases of COVID-19 to come.

“Having as many people tested as possible is important,” Levine said. “I encourage every resident to get a test, whether or not you think you might have COVID-19. Even people with no symptoms or who don’t feel sick can spread the virus.”

Still no useful translation

Winooski is the most densely populated city in northern New England, with 7,300 people in about 1 square mile, according to city officials. It also has one of the most diverse populations in the state, with immigrants from countries ranging from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Nepal.

Representatives of that immigrant community attended the press conference on Friday and raised a number of issues regarding testing and containment of the coronavirus.

Diambou Virginie said there are still many languages spoken in Vermont for which there is no “useful translation” available. 

“A lot of people from the minority community cannot access to real information (about COVID-19),” Virginie said. “They don’t speak English and we were told there were no funds to hire interpreters to make that information available to them.”

City Manager Jessie Baker said Virginie was making an “incredibly important point.” She said the city is looking for additional funding to provide more interpreters.

“We know this is an issue and we will continue to focus on it,” Baker said. “Winooski is very proud to be the most diverse community the state. Part of our inherent strength is that we are multi-cultural.”

Baker also stressed that the outbreak in Winooski is not confined to one cultural group or one area of the city.

“It is pervasive in our community,” she said.

Symphorien Sikyala, an interpreter for the African community, said that when the people he helps test positive they are told to stay home for 14 days, but that is a near impossibility.

“We have many things to do,” Sikyala said. “We have to pay our rent. We have to pay our utility bills and more than that, we have to pay our food. You ask people to stay home. It’s very confusing for them, so they say, ‘How can we live like that? Who can go to buy the food for us?'”

The more tests, the better

Back at the pop-up clinic, Puru Nepal said he and his father were tested earlier in the week. He tested negative, but his 58-year-old father tested positive.

Nepal immigrated to Vermont from a Bhutanese refugee camp in Nepal in 2008 with his parents and two sisters. He works as an electrical engineer.

Nepal’s father lives with him and his family, and has underlying conditions including diabetes and poor kidney function. He said his father is self-quarantining in the house.

“We manage to do it,” Nepal said. “So far he’s fine.”

At the other end of the line from Nepal on Friday, Karen Lloyd sat down to have her nose swabbed for the coronavirus test.

Lloyd is already dealing with Lyme disease, one of the reasons she decided to get tested.

“I know that I would be at higher risk,” she said.

Lloyd said she has watched over the past couple of months as groups of children and teenagers in her neighborhood have congregated without wearing masks.

“I found a higher mask use in other places,” she said. “At Healthy Living it’s almost 100%. If I go to Walgreens (in Winooski) to get my prescription it’s maybe 40%.”

Lloyd hopes the pop-up clinic will raise awareness in her neighborhood and beyond.

“The more people who are tested, the better we know what’s happening in Winooski,” she said.

Contact Dan D’Ambrosio at 660-1841 or ddambrosio@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanDambrosioVT. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. Sign up today for a digital subscription. 

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