Reporter’s notebook: How many lives you saved in 2020

Reporter’s notebook: How many lives you saved in 2020

Marnie's masks
Early in the pandemic, VTDigger finance manager Marnie DeFreest sewed masks for health workers at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and for her co-workers. Photo by Marnie DeFreest

I have a theory that one of the toughest challenges of combating Covid fatigue is that the struggles of the pandemic are immediate and tangible, while the benefits are hard to grasp.

You know at an abstract level that flattening the curve is essential for saving lives, but you don’t feel heroic just from walking around with a mask on, or declining to hug your mom, or staying home rather than traveling out of state for Christmas.

So here’s a thought exercise that might lift your spirits a little.

It’s hard to dispute that Vermont has one of the best track records when it comes to preventing the spread of Covid-19 in its borders. Even in the worst parts of its latest wave, the state has consistently had a lower case rate than the national average. 

The federal government rates Vermont as one of the few states in the “green zone” for test positivity, and in the “light red” zone for its new case rate, just below Hawaii.

Nearly 300 days after it announced its first positive case, Vermont has had 7,100 cases and 130 deaths. 

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If Vermont had had the same death rate as the rest of the United States, it would have had 630 deaths, according to death data from the New York Times.

If it had the same death rate as neighboring New York, it would have had 1,185 deaths.

If it had the same death rate as New Jersey — the state with the highest death rate in the country — Vermont would have had 1,310 deaths.

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But none of these are a baseline comparison, because even the worst-hit states took some measures to prevent further spread. And even in states with the fewest restrictions, many residents chose to wear masks and socially distance. 

It’s hard to say exactly what the numbers would have looked like if no action was taken, because it didn’t happen. But one study from the Imperial College of London, done early on in the pandemic, projected 2.2 million deaths in the U.S. without any public health interventions.

That would have translated to 4,174 deaths in Vermont, about 32 times the actual number. That would mean Vermonters saved 4,045 lives. 

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That translates to about 13 lives saved every day of the pandemic because of the actions you took. It’s one life for every 154 Vermonters. 

There may be other reasons for Vermont’s good track record on Covid, its relative isolation and healthy people among them. But it’s also clear that Vermonters were proactive in preventing the spread of Covid.

Not only did the majority of Vermonters wear masks when needed, 41% of the state chose to get tested for Covid and three-quarters of people cooperated with contract tracers when interviewed.

At a recent press conference, Gov. Phil Scott praised the hard work of Vermonters as the main reason it fared so well in the pandemic. 

“I think we’re doing a pretty good job in Vermont, but it’s due to Vermonters just being compliant, following the guidelines, the simple procedures,” he said. 

The meaning of life in a pandemic

You might recognize my byline from my regular Covid data updates, or from the twice-weekly governor’s press conferences where I’m one of many reporters in the Q&A queue.

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Following this beat has meant a flood of reader emails, many from people who have never written to VTDigger before. Some are critical, but helpful. Some are angry. Some are sad. Many are surprisingly kind.

Surprising, because I know how hard it is to stay positive right now, especially when checking the latest death toll from the disease. Yet Vermonters have found a way to carve hope out of dire circumstances, and when there was none to be found, they created hope themselves.

Part of what it means to be human is our ability to care about others, to value other human’s lives. Looking at the 1,000 or more lives we saved in 2020 — and the value we placed on each other — makes me proud to be a Vermonter.

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