‘I don’t feel any fear going out.’ How residents are living in America’s most vaccinated state

The sweaty Lindy Hoppers stood in a circle clapping to a hard-driving beat — switching partners and laughing on the ballroom floor of The Champlain Club in Vermont’s largest city.

They clasped hands and rock stepped and spun in and out of quick embraces to swinging jazz rhythms on one of the last hardwood ballrooms in Burlington.

With explosions of Covid-19 cases in almost every state fueling yet another nationwide surge in the deadly pandemic, the 30 dancers of all ages and skill levels could be engaging in a risky pleasure.

“I thought partner dancing was always going to be the last thing to come back from the pandemic because there’s so much interaction,” said one dancer, Lorilee Schoenbeck, a naturopathic physician.

“It’s aerobic in each other’s faces and you’re constantly changing partners… In this dance venue, this would be an absolute super spreader.”

But these dancers are all vaccinated. They reside in America’s most vaccinated state — 83.7% of Vermonters 12 and over have received at least one shot, according to health officials.

Throughout Vermont, hospital Covid-19 units are mostly empty. Bars and restaurants are hopping again. In remote rural towns, diners, country stores and campgrounds are filling up.

As the national health crisis evolves into “a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” in the words of US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Vermont health officials tout the Green Mountain State as the safest place in America.

Many Vermonters are venturing out, unmasked and with no fear, just as the CDC recommended on Tuesday that fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors in US counties with soaring transmission rates.

“My question is, ‘Do you want to have a life again?'” Schoenbeck said. “We’re living. Get vaccinated. Get back in the game.”

Vaccination push continues

Around the corner from downtown Burlington’s bustling Church Street Marketplace, Dr. Mark Levine, state health commissioner, sat at a small conference table in his office and rattled off statistics that enabled Gov. Phil Scott to lift all Covid-19 restrictions in mid June.

Vermont was the first state to partially vaccinate at least 80 percent of residents 12 or older. The current rate of more than 83% compares with the nation’s 66.6% one-dose rate according to the CDC — for the same age group.

More than 67% of the state’s roughly 624,000 residents have been fully vaccinated, compared with about 49% for the US overall.

The state has maintained one of the country’s lowest infection rates — currently at 1.6% for a seven-day average, according to the health department’s Covid-19 dashboard. Vermont has had 259 Covid-19 deaths.

“It’s the lowest number of deaths on the continental US,” said Levine, sitting in front of a bobblehead of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The state’s last Covid-19-related death was on July 10, Levine said. In June and July, the state has had four deaths. There are five Covid-19 patients hospitalized in the entire state.

Vermont’s first vaccine was administered in mid December. The state’s vaccination campaign isn’t done.

“The whole strategy is, we want a Vermonter to essentially stumble on the vaccine,” Levine said.

“If you’re at one of the beaches on Lake Champlain here in Burlington or you were … on Church Street, you’re not going to see a vaccine tent every day but you’re going to see it sometimes. That’s the sort of strategy. We’re going to make sure it’s all around you… If there’s a state fair, it’s got to have vaccine. If there’s a farmers’ market or a flea market, it’s going to have vaccine.”

Along Church Street Marketplace, visible from Levine’s downtown office, the wide four-block concourse is crowded with people — most not wearing masks. Its bars, shops and restaurants have been filling up. Outside Vermont’s own Ben & Jerry’s, dozens of young people — many not wearing face coverings or social distancing — line up in clusters for ice cream day and night.

The eastern shoreline of Lake Champlain, where signs with Covid-19 safety messages have been replaced with warnings of harmful cyanobacteria blooms in the water, teems with couples, children and pets. Burlington is in Chittenden County, which has a vaccination rate of 85.4%.

“We’re trying to tell people … fall and winter is what we’re worried about,” Levine said. “We want that vaccine rate up now in anticipation of the following winter so we don’t have to change our behavior at that time.”

Restrictions lifted ‘because it’s safe to do so’

On June 14, when Vermont became the first state to vaccinate more than 80% of its population over the age of 12, Gov. Scott, a moderate Republican, announced Vermont’s state of emergency would formally end at midnight.

“Why? Because it’s safe to do so,” the governor said.

At the same time, however, the Delta variant was starting to dominate the US.

A handful of states have been driving the bulk of the nationwide Covid-19 case surge and the threat of serious disease and death is to the unvaccinated, according to White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients.

Last week, just three states — Florida, Texas and Missouri — that share low vaccination rates accounted for 40 percent of all cases nationwide, Zients said.

And hospitals are filling up with Covid-19 patients again, this time with younger patients than before, according to doctors in Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Missouri.

The only way to halt the resurgence, health officials said, is to get more people vaccinated.

“Even if somebody comes into Vermont and has the Delta variant … and they get sick and they’re infectious while they’re here in Vermont,” Levine said.

“If 83-plus percent of the population is vaccinated. That variant runs into a wall. Now, people who’ve been vaccinated … can still get sick with the variant. We’ve seen that all around the country. But the reality is its likelihood of creating any major outbreak is really small because it’s going to keep running into people that it can’t actually get transmitted from because they are going to be immune.”

‘Community response and collective action’

At Northwestern Medical Center in St. Albans, a community hospital about 28 miles northeast of Burlington, a staff member took a lunch break last week at the nurse’s station in the shuttered and dimly lit Covid-19 ward.

The hospital treated its last Covid-19 patient in early May, said Dr. John Minadeo, chief medical officer.

“It’s a sign of, at this point in time, your vaccination status in the community,” Minadeo said of the empty ward. “But I believe that’s why we don’t have patients in these beds… So this is evidence of — you’re in a vaccinated community, you’re not going to have hospitalizations.”

St. Albans is in Franklin County, where 73.7% of residents 12 or older have received at least one vaccine dose, according to the state health department.

Minadeo said the hospital was prepared to activate the ward if needed.

“We have to think the fall is coming and assume that, you know, it may happen again,” he said. “We’re in a little bit better shape because we’ve done it once before.”

Vermont’s success in vaccinating its residents is attributed to various factors, including the accessibility of vaccine sites; overall trust in the political leadership and science; an aging, mostly white and liberal populace; and a generally health conscious population with a strong sense of civic responsibility.

“A lot of people see Vermont as being exceptional in some ways,” said Anne Sosin, a policy fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

“And it’s a really blue state but if you look a little bit closer … we’re a much more purple state than many understand. There are many rural barriers to health care and Vermont demonstrated that if you bring vaccines to places where people live, work and play that you can overcome many of the obstacles to achieving high rates of vaccination. Vermont not only used its health care system and large sites, but it’s also brought vaccines out to firehouses, schools, community sites, pop up clinics, gas stations and beaches.”

Sosin said rural Orleans County, in one of the most remote and conservative parts of the state, has a vaccination rate of 70.8%. She said she was vaccinated in an Orleans County firehouse.

Orleans is one of three far off Vermont counties — near the Canadian border — that make up a region known as the Northeast Kingdom, where residents take pride in their individuality and separateness.

“The high rates of vaccination are a testament not only to a really well run state program but to the vast community infrastructure in that part of the state,” Sosin said.

Another Northeast Kingdom county, Essex, has the lowest vaccination rate in the state at 58.5%. The other county, Caledonia, has partially vaccinated 70.8% of its 12 and over population.

“One really important lesson right now, as I think about what’s happening across the country, is the importance of community and solidarity,” Sosin said. “And I know that sounds kind of soft but we hear the CDC saying, ‘It’s in your hands.’ This is a very individualistic approach to the pandemic. Yet Vermonters really highlighted the importance of community response and collective action.”

‘A lot of older Vermonters … don’t like change’

At the Mooselook Diner in the Essex County town of Concord, about 90 miles east of Burlington, waitress Justine Alegria Cummins, 25, said neither she nor her children have gotten the vaccine because she fears “adverse effects” from the shot. The place was hopping during lunch hour one day last week.

“It never affected me in my personal life enough to make me want to get the vaccine,” she said of Covid-19.

Another waitress, Angela Marshall, 46, said she is not an anti-vaxxer but has not received the vaccine because she doesn’t believe enough time was spent researching it. She said she tested positive with Covid-19 about six weeks ago and was bedridden for two weeks.

“I couldn’t move,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything.”

She recovered but said she still won’t get vaccinated.

Down the road at the Pettyco Junction Country Store in St. Johnsbury, on the lower edge of the Northeast Kingdom, a retired 67-year-old contractor named Bernie Timson said he will remain part of the unvaccinated state population.

“They put you on a spot where they’re saying, ‘If you’re not vaccinated, you can come in my store but you’ve got to wear a mask,'” he said. “I’m not going to put a mask on to come in your store. I’m still going to store but I ain’t putting a mask on. There’s no way I’m putting the mask on because that just puts you as a mark — you ain’t vaccinated.”

At Moose River Campground, owner Mary Lunderville said the campground is full and that she and her husband have had to turn down reservations because there’s no room.

Lunderville, who wouldn’t give her age but described herself as an “early senior,” said the couple was initially reluctant to get the vaccine because they were “unsure if it was going to be safe.” When vaccinated friends did not become ill, she said, they agreed to get the shot in mid April mostly in order make their customers feel comfortable.

“I like to make sure my campers are happy and safe,” she said.

Lunderville said she still requires masks and gloves when people help themselves to food at the big holiday dinners on the campgrounds.

“There are more real Vermonters on this side than out of staters who moved to Vermont,” she said. “A lot of older Vermonters like my husband they don’t like change. It could be just because they’re afraid of change. It could be stubbornness.”

‘I don’t feel any fear going out’

At the sweltering Champlain Club in Burlington, bandleader Louis Prima’s famous combination of “Just a Gigolo” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody” blared from speakers as the swing enthusiasts switched partners.

“A-one, a-two, a-you know what to do,” said instructor Jean Elizabeth Shockley, using the phrase made famous by Lindy Hop pioneer Frankie Manning.

Shockley said there were at least 20 new faces on the dance floor on this Tuesday evening in mid July.

All participants had to show their Covid-19 vaccination card for admission to the weekly Vermont Swings class and the two-hour dance.

“There’s a different kind of energy here,” instructor Maria Garrido said. “People are proud and aware of what Vermont has done…. I’m personally worried about the variants and surges but I really am proud of what we accomplished. I feel that for the most part we’re able to get closer to normal and it’s really exciting.”

Trim and energetic at 73, David Rose lamented that his dance partner of eight years was absent this evening because of her refusal to get the vaccine.

“In fact, all during the pandemic she was saying, ‘Oh, David, we got to dance. We got to dance.’ And I said, Vermont Swings is opening up. Let’s go and she says, ‘I can’t do that. I’m not vaccinated.’ “

Rose said the state’s biggest challenge will be convincing the remaining unvaccinated residents to get the shot.

“It’s sad for me that she feels that way and that she can’t come in because they won’t let her in,” Rose said of his longtime dance partner. “I don’t want to offend her and push her… I asked, ‘Why don’t you want to get the vaccine?’ She says, ‘I think it’s some kind of game to make money by the pharmaceutical companies or the government telling us what to do.’ “

Natalie Nachtigal, 32, said she moved to Burlington in September from Florida, which reported an average of 10,452 new cases each day over the past week — more than triple the daily average from two weeks ago, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

“I don’t feel any fear going out and a lot of it has to do with a sense of community that Vermont really lets shine,” she said. “It’s very apparent in community members that it’s kind of like one-for-all rather than an all-for-one community mentality.”

Mark Jerome Feinstein, 26, moved to Vermont one month ago from California, where San Diego and Los Angeles counties both reported their highest number of cases since February, and hospitalizations in LA County more than doubled in two weeks.

“It was definitely a weight off my shoulders to realize that I was going to a place where life could be a little bit more normal,” Feinstein, a PhD student in psychology at the University of Vermont, said between dances.

“You don’t know whether Delta or Covid 2021 or 2022 is coming down the pike. And so you might as well go out and have some fun as safely as possible, as respectfully as possible, while you can.”

After all, he said, the dances they’ve been practicing came about in the wake of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, World War I and the Great Depression.

“It’s this funny little microcosm where we get to dance the same dances that they did so that they could celebrate being alive,” Feinstein said. “We can do the same thing.”

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