UVM researchers study lessons learned from coronavirus crisis

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) As the global pandemic continues, governments are getting a chance to look analyze their responses. A report out of Norway concluded that they may have not needed a full lockdown, while top health officials in Sweden this week admitted their hands-off strategy did too little to stop the virus' spread. A new study from University of Vermont researchers aims to gather Vermont-specific data to help give state officials more targeted information to make decisions the next time around.

Health economist Eline van den Broek-Altenburg says that economic hardship casts a dark shadow on the research her team collected on COVID-19's impact on Vermonters. "There was signficant job loss and income loss," she said. "The price that people have to pay is very high, and that's mostly economic effects, but also health effects."

Van den Broek-Altenburg's team at the UVM Larner College of Medicine measured those effects with a recent survey filled out by 1,700 adults in Chittenden County. Among their findings:

• 1 in 10 lost their job due to the pandemic.
• 28% lost some income.
• 19% used savings to pay monthly expenses.
• 1 in 10 said they had trouble getting fresh fruits and vegetables.
• 23% deferred primary care visits with their doctor, among other
medical care.

Van den Broek-Altenburg says there was a common theme. "Those who are already in vulnerable situations are affected the most," she said. But she says despite several angry emails she got, Vermonters were overall compliant with the measures the state imposed. About 80 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with them. "A lot of people are doing what they're supposed to be doing."

Her study was done independently, but she says her goal is to give state leaders data that helps create a more Vermont-specific model for combating the virus. She says many governments took a one-size-fits-all approach based on strategies from China and Italy and she questions whether all those actions had a strong scientific basis.

"It was almost a better-be-safe-than-sorry type of approach, and I think everybody agrees that was almost the only way to go," van den Broek-Altenburg said. "We now see, even in the data from the survey, that Vermont in many ways is not like those places. ...and the only thing we wanted to add to that debate was can we please move to some more data-driven, evidence-based decision-making."

We asked state leaders whether Vermont would need to take the same steps the next time an outbreak happens. The short answer -- probably not. "I think that we were somewhat flat-footed when this first arrived, but at this point I think we're much more seasoned and we can take a different approach," said Governor Phil Scott.

He says they've learned a lot since the pandemic hit. His team is banking on our testing and tracing capacity and Vermonters' awareness of safety measures to avoid shutting down large parts of the economy again. "It would be a much more targeted approach in the future would be my hope," Scott said.

The next step for researchers here is testing. They are trying to learn how jobs, social habits, income, and other factors might affect someone's likelihood of getting COVID-19 and how prevalent it might be in the general population. They plan to run both swab and antibody tests on some of the respondents to see how many have been exposed the virus.