Comparisons may be odious things, but they seem to be unavoidable as we tend to justify our choices, or impressions by the information we gather, even when the information seems at odds with commonsense. Thus, when the state released town-by-town data this week on the coronavirus it was surprising, shocking actually, to see Franklin County with 91 cases, and Swanton as home to 44 of the 91.
Franklin County is second only to Chittenden County, which has 416 cases, and we are almost 30 percent higher than Windham County with 71 cases, which ranks third in the state. For us as a county, that’s a disproportionately high number of Covid-19 cases, and for Swanton, it’s off the charts.
Are we just sicker here than elsewhere? Is this spillover from Chittenden County? Are the people in Swanton not practicing their social distancing?
It’s none of that.
The inflated numbers come from the inmates at Northwestern State Correctional Center. Of the 91 cases county wide, and of the 44 cases listed for Swanton, 38 of them are cases within the high security prison. That means, countywide, Covid-19 cases within the prison represent almost 42 percent of our total case count. In Swanton, the prison [which is actually in St. Albans Town, represents 86 percent of its cases.
When that’s understood, the picture changes dramatically. Instead of being perched toward the top, we’d be in the middle if the inmates were not counted, which is more representative of our population.
The same process needs to be followed when examining case totals on a town-by-town basis elsewhere. In Chittenden County, Burlington, Essex, Colchester, South Burlington and Williston showed some high numbers — particularly Burlington with 157 cases. But Burlington, for example is home to Burlington Health and Rehab and Birchwood Terrace, two facilities that were hit hard early and who house the elderly and infirm. The same applies to Essex. Countywide, Chittenden County has had eight senior facilities and resident complexes that have reported Covid-19 cases; together they represent a sizable percentage of the overall total.
It’s also important to recognize that the mortality rate in Vermont mirrors much of what we’re seeing everywhere else, including deaths according to age. In Vermont roughly 94 percent of the deaths are in the over 60 age category [we don’t know how the numbers skew at the lower end of the 60-69 age range.] Almost all had one or more underlying conditions.
The percentages bear out the numbers cited by Harvard professor of Medicine Martin Kulldorff, when the noted, “…people aged in the 70s have roughly twice the mortality of those in their 60s, 10 times the mortality of those in their 50s, 40 times that of those in their 40s, 100 times that of those in their 30s, and 300 times that of those in their 20s. The over-70s have a mortality that is more than 3,000 times higher than children have.”
As we begin to understand the numbers and the information they provide we will be better able to depart from the one-size-fits-all approach of the current lockdown, to one that protects the most vulnerable and, at the same time, figures out how to move from the lockdown without the disease resurging. It’s figuring out the strategy that minimizes the mortality rate until we reach herd immunity. It’s the strategy being used in Sweden, with the rest of the world watching intently, hoping to learn.
Again, it brings us back to the comparisons, and comparisons are only as good as the information we’re given. For the moment, that makes the people in Swanton feel a bit better.
by Emerson Lynn