BENNINGTON — The recent major uptick in the deadly COVID-19 pandemic in Bennington County has struck local law enforcement, including Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette.
“We do have an outbreak at the Bennington Police Department,” Town Manager Stuart Hurd said Tuesday.
“I believe it is six people impacted,” he told the Bennington Banner. Five are sworn officers and one is a civilian, he said.
Before reaching out to Hurd, the Bennington Banner had been provided with the names of those impacted, including one employee reportedly in the intensive care unit. Hurd declined to confirm any names of those testing positive, and the newspaper has decided to respect their privacy unless people were willing to confirm their positive test.
Doucette, who is recovering at home, said he was willing to go on the record to discuss his case. The chief said he had followed all the protocols, including masks and social distancing, but still managed to somehow become infected.
Doucette said he believes he came in contact on Dec. 14 at the Bennington Police Department and three days later began to show signs of the COVID symptoms. Another employee tested positive for COVID-19, and the chief said he went for his own test. It came back positive.
The chief said COVID has left him feeling really bad.
The chief said he believes that some of those testing positive could begin returning to work by the end of this week.
“We think we have a good handle on it,” Doucette said.
Hurd said Doucette remains in charge of the Police Department.
Hurd said the other members of the police department that may have had contact with the infected employees went into quarantine and have returned to work after testing negative.
He said the police department continues to provide around-the-clock protection for the town of about 16,000 residents.
The police department has 26 sworn officers and enough personnel to cover all the work shifts, Hurd said. He said each shift has a minimum of 3 officers, including at least one sergeant, one corporal and one officer to handle calls for service. Doucette said both the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and the Bennington County Sheriff’s Department have offered officers to do patrols if the town is ever short-handed. So far, the unaffected BPD members have risen to the task by making schedule adjustments, the chief said.
Hurd said the police station on South Street remains closed to the public, but calls for service are still being accepted by emergency dispatchers. Bennington Select Board Chairman Donald Campbell just issued a statement on the matter Tuesday evening.
“Covid is clearly among us. Now more ever we all need to be careful for ourselves and for each other. But this is also a painful reminder that front line workers take tremendous, sometimes-unavoidable risk for us. We are so grateful for their service and wish speedy recovery to all those affected.”
Information about the outbreaks has not been forthcoming from the Vermont Health Department. Dr. Mark Levine, Vermont’s health commissioner, declined last Thursday to provide a list of the outbreak sites or the numbers impacted. As of Monday the Vermont Health Department said it had adopted a new policy that the public would have to file formal requests under Vermont’s Public Records Law to obtain statistical information on outbreaks and sites. The information had been provided in the past.
Levine, during Gov. Phil Scott’s news conference, defended the change in department transparency, noting that his lawyers wanted it. No names had been sought, only statistics.
The Health Department still had not released the list of Vermont outbreaks to the public as of Tuesday night.
Over the past two weeks, 153 new COVID-19 cases were reported in Bennington County — a total that is second only to the more populous Chittenden County, which has seen 487 cases during the same time period, according to an online dashboard maintained by the Vermont Department of Health updated Monday morning.
Hurd reported that no other Bennington town office or department has been hit by COVID-19.
State Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said he had heard a rumor about the outbreak at the town police department. He figured with the workload it was just a matter of time before somebody was infected.
“It points to the danger that our first responders face and what they face every day,” Sears said in a phone interview Tuesday evening.
“We are hoping for a speedy recovery for all,” he said.
Sears said one-third of the workers locally come from out-of-state — New York or Massachusetts.
He noted the Albany-Troy, N.Y. area is about 45 to 60 minutes away. It has a population of about 880,000.
The town of Bennington, which is sixth in population, ranks in eighth place for the most cases — 173 as of Dec. 23, the health department said.
Bennington County ranks fourth in cumulative cases (467) for the year, the numbers showed this week. Chittenden County has 2,566, Washington County at 871 and Franklin County at 522.
When ranked by cumulative cases per 10,000 residents, Bennington County at 131.1 cases ranks third in the state, below Chittenden (155.9) and Washington (149.8) counties.