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Virus spike in Vermont city hits immigrant communities

June 10, 2020 GMT
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A car passes through downtown Winooski, Vt., Tuesday June 9, 2020. Members of Winooski's immigrant community say that their members have been hit hard by the virus that causes COVID-19. The Vermont Health Department is working to contain the outbreak. (AP Photo/Wilson Ring)
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A car passes through downtown Winooski, Vt., Tuesday June 9, 2020. Members of Winooski's immigrant community say that their members have been hit hard by the virus that causes COVID-19. The Vermont Health Department is working to contain the outbreak. (AP Photo/Wilson Ring)

WINOOSKI, Vt. (AP) — A spike in coronavirus cases in a small Vermont city has hit tightly knit immigrant communities where a language barrier may have prevented some from knowing how to prevent the spread or get tested, some immigrant community members said Tuesday.

“It is kind of spreading pretty badly,” said Kamal Pradhan, a Bhutanese American, who said he knows of roughly 40 in the Bhutanese community who have been infected with COVID-19. He got tested Tuesday. Harka Khadka, a landlord and community organizer, who is also from Bhutan and lives in Winooski, where the outbreak started, said several of his tenants from the Congo also have been infected.

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Many are now getting tested, they said. According to the Vermont Health Department, 598 people have been tested at the Winooski site between June 1 and June 7. Interpreters, liaisons and leaders of the communities are urging people, entire families, to come in and get tested, said Khadka.

“They trust the interpreters because they need someone to help at the testing site, as well,” he said. “People are coming in big numbers and they are getting tested.” But he worries that fewer non-immigrant Winooski residents are getting tested so that the numbers could be skewed.

“My message to the community: whether or not you have symptoms everybody should go and get tested,” Khadka said, adding that it will help to protect other people.

The outbreak that started on Memorial Day has grown to 68 cases, including at least 24 children, and spread to other communities, including Burlington, Vermont officials said.

The state reported on Tuesday nine new infections statewide with the virus, including six linked to the Winooski outbreak. Officials did not immediately say how many, if any, of the new cases involved children.

The plan is to contain the outbreak with aggressive testing and work to ensure it doesn’t continue to spread.

Winooski, with a population of about 7,300 in 1.4 square miles, is considered one of Vermont’s most diverse and densely populated communities that is home to many non-English speakers.

Health officials have only said the cases are confined to one social network of families. State Epidemiologist Patsy Kelso said contact tracers have identified shared activities that could have led to the outbreak and officials believe there has been spread within households, too.

Health Department spokesperson Ben Truman said Tuesday that the department has obligations under state and federal law to protect against the disclosure of private health information while at the same time its primary mission is to make sure Vermonters have the information they need to protect themselves and their loved ones.

“That drives our work to be sensitive to the needs of everybody in the state and culturally sensitive and not stigmatizing people or places,” he said.

The Rev. Daniel Rai, the pastor of the Grace United Church attended by more than 40 families in the Bhutanese and Nepali community, said no members of his congregation have tested positive for the virus but he’s heard of the infections.

He said many members of the community are essential workers who can’t stay home during the pandemic.

“People right now are very scared,” Rai said. “They are scared to go to grocery stores, even small crowds, they are scared.”

Bidur Dahal, a former Winooski resident from Bhutan, thinks more public outreach should have been done and sooner.

“We need to definitely respond to it but it would have been better if there had been more proactive outreach,” said Dahal, a masters student of public health at the University of Vermont.

Some people didn’t take the virus seriously, said Pradhan. Some other new Americans are waiting out the symptoms at home, opting not to or are afraid to get tested, Khadka said.

“I think this kind of event will initiate awareness seriously. I think people will become serious after this one,” Pradhan said.

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Lisa Rathke reported from Marshfield, Vermont.