Vulnerable In Wilton: Residents at Risk When Others Don’t Stay Home

Wilton’s Kennedy Snyder, pictured here in her dorm room at USC, has battled childhood cancer.

By now, everyone has heard the urgent appeals to the public by local, state and federal officials to follow social distancing guidelines and to “Stay Home, Stay Safe”.

Yet, even now, some residents continue to disregard those guidelines:  gathering in groups, continuing to use “closed” recreational facilities, and generally ignoring social distancing recommendations.

First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice admonished the rule-breakers in her March 31 nightly update and continues to urge all residents to “behave as if you have the virus and if those around you do as well” for the sake of “your fellow Wilton community members.”

Some of those community members who are most at risk from COVID-19 infection will be profiled here, giving a face to the vulnerable in our midst.

Kennedy Snyder, Cancer Fighter

Kennedy Snyder is a 2018 graduate of Wilton High School, now in her sophomore year at the University of Southern California.

Like most college students, Snyder returned home when the pandemic gained its foothold in the U.S. But unlike most college students, she knows what it’s like to face the pandemic as a cancer fighter.

When she was just two years old, Snyder was diagnosed with inoperable tumors, called astrocytoma, in her spine. Treatment has been a long road, and now that she has reached young adulthood, Snyder must continually monitor her condition.

She feels fortunate that her current status does not place her among the most seriously immune-compromised, but Snyder wants Wilton residents to know that there are many in the community for whom COVID-19 is “a matter of life or death”.

“There are a lot more people in Wilton than you might think who have cancer,” she suggested. She also pointed out that people treated for cancer in the past often remain at high risk. “Treatment can affect your immune system for a really long time.”

Snyder is keenly aware of the collective effort that is needed to protect this vulnerable population. “If we all do [social distancing], the virus will go away sooner and we can go back to normal. If we all do it,” she repeated with emphasis.

These days, Snyder has chosen to focus on a workout challenge with friends… virtually, that is, thanks to her Apple watch. “Staying inside is very important. People who ignore that are being insensitive to a greater population [with cancer] than they realize. They’re saying they really don’t care.”

Snyder and her parents, Kristy and Jeff Snyder, have shown just how much they do care for the cancer community. Together, and with the help of Warriors For A Cure team fundraisers, they have raised over $600,000 for Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation which supports research for cures and treatments for children with cancer.

Diane McDermott, First Responder

Diane McDermott is a Wilton resident, mother, wife and emergency responder with Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps.

She recognizes it’s challenging for people to follow the guidelines. “It’s hard,” she said. “This is not the norm for anybody. You want to get out, even for mental health.”

“But,” she continued, “You go out the door, you’re exposed.”

McDermott feels that exposure every time she responds to a call. “We’re averaging roughly the same number of calls, but now they’re [nearly] all COVID-19 calls.”

That feeling of exposure is not due to a lack of protective equipment, at least thus far. But even with PPE, McDermott worries about the possibility of bringing the virus home to her own family.

There is an added layer of anxiety from all the uncertainty in a rapidly changing environment. McDermott described gaps in information previously provided by hospitals (now shifting to the Department of Health), as well as the difficulty keeping up with new information, such as where sick patients are being kept isolated from other patients in a nursing home.

Even if not out on a call, EMT’s are at increased risk just being on their shift. “It’s not just fear of a patient,” she explained. “It’s fear of the person you’re working with. We try to stay 6 feet apart on our shifts, but you’re in close quarters with other people who may have been exposed. It’s never off your mind.”

Ironically, McDermott hypothesized that social distancing compliance might improve in Wilton if COVID-19 cases keep rising. “Once people know somebody personally [affected by COVID-19], it becomes real and they’ll take it more seriously.”

McDermott senses that “young people” in general may be inclined to resist social distancing recommendations. By nature, young people are often nonchalant about their own risks, and they may not fully grasp their potential impact on community spread. McDermott noted that young people are probably more likely to take the guidelines seriously if they are in a household with someone who has an underlying health condition.

McDermott expressed appreciation for the level of support the WVAC has received. “The community has been incredible,” McDermott said, but she worries that as the days go by, people will begin losing patience and start justifying exceptions to the Stay Home policy.

“Maybe they’ll take a trip to the craft store, or go to Walmart, or let the kids play in the driveway with the neighbors… but it’s really not necessary.”

One silver lining McDermott reported:  “Motor vehicle accidents are down. No one is on the road.”

Lucia Sato, Wilton Hardware

Lucia Sato, 30 years old, is working a full-time schedule at Wilton Hardware located on River Road in Wilton Center. She is the daughter of Wilton’s Tom Sato, the owner of the store. Both Satos are very familiar faces to customers.

GMW caught Lucia at the store on Sunday, April 5, where business has been brisk. She described the pressure of trying to keep up with changing retail guidelines. “We are trying to do our best, but everything is changing every day. There’s no handbook for this. What rules apply to us? We aren’t a grocery store, we aren’t a hospital. We’re all learning.”

Like other stores, Wilton Hardware has installed plexiglass at checkout, taped lines on the floor to guide customers, and provided masks and gloves to employees. But even with precautions, Lucia feels at risk being in a public-facing position.

“It’s nerve-wracking for me. I have a pre-existing condition. On a personal level, I don’t want to be here, but I need my job.” Never imagining that her retail position might put her health at risk, she must now continually find the balance between helping customers and protecting herself.

Fertilizer and paint are among the best sellers in the store right now. Because people are at home, Sato surmises, they realize they have projects they want to do or now have the time to do. The question is, are those projects really essential, necessitating a trip to the store right now? 

Sato has observed a broad spectrum of attitudes and behaviors among customers coming into the store. At one end of the spectrum, customers are wearing masks and keeping distance from employees. At the other end, she described, “I see people not following the guidelines, like approaching me closely or coming in with their kids” or other inappropriate behavior.

She attributes the latter to a belief, among some, that “it won’t happen to me” and perhaps the belief that a smaller store is “safer” than a larger one. But she wishes more customers would be more sensitive to the constant risk she experiences at work. “I think [some] people just feel invincible, but we are the ones on the front lines. If we saw more people taking precautions, we might not feel as scared.”

Maintain Vigilance

Recent data suggested a glimmer of hope in that Wilton has a lower per capita rate of infection than surrounding towns. However, the latest tally of confirmed new cases in Wilton has climbed to almost 80, illustrating the need for continued stay-home and social distancing behaviors.

Additionally, new research from Iceland, cited in the April 2 Wilton coronavirus update (suggesting that 50% of infections were asymptomatic), only reinforces the need for everyone in the community to practice social distancing.

Vanderslice, who has openly expressed frustration with a lack of compliance with social distancing guidelines by some residents, is imploring everyone to “keep up the vigilance.”