Critics say COVID outreach to Winooski lacking

Published: Jun. 5, 2020 at 4:44 PM EDT
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Vermont heath officials are now calling a cluster of coronarivus cases in Winooski an outbreak. Could health officials have done more to educate Winooski's diverse population?

"I want to let you know that this could happen anywhere," said Vt. Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine Friday.

With more testing, more cases have been reported. It started on Saturday with five or fewer confirmed cases. By Monday it was seven. Officials on Wednesday estimated upwards of 20 cases. By Thursday that number had jumped to 34, and Friday's numbers are still pending.

"This confirms that there is ongoing spread -- an outbreak. What we mean by an outbreak is the ongoing cases in the community that are connected to each other in one way or another," Levine said.

He says the outbreak is spread throughout the city but is focused on one social network of families. The infections are evenly split between adults and kids.

"These cases are impacting several different families and neighbors across our community" said Winooski Mayor Kristine Lott.

Several people at Friday's media briefing said the state could have done more to educate Winooski's diverse population.

"There is a lot of stress in the community because of this outbreak," said Rita Neopaney, an interpreter who has worked in the community. "Where is the education? They have not reached out to the minority -- that's it."

Winooski is less than two-square miles and the most diverse community in Vermont. Seven-thousand people live on the community, speaking more than 20 different languages with one-fifth of households speaking a language other than English at home.

"For example, the Kibembe language is not being served. There is a big number of people from Congo that speak that language and there was no translation" said Virginie Diambou, who works with the local refugee community.

Levine and local officials rejected the the idea that outreach was lacking. "I don't think its a matter of not having the access to the proper interpretation strategies and what have you, it's a matter of this is a very challenging and delicate process," Levine said. "If there is a population we didn't have an awareness of or we didn't have the language right on, we will do that, we will get it right."

Winooski officials say they've worked since early-March with the Vermont Multilingual Coronavirus Communications Task Force, schools, landlords and faith leaders to share information and resources.

Because of the increase in cases -- the highest number seen since early April -- officials say they plan to keep a pop-up testing site at the O'Brien Community Center open all next week.