Pay No Attention to the Pandemic Behind the Curtain

Wow. Gov. Phil Scott’s weekly press briefing was a nonstop festival of blame-shifting, convenient rationalization and, well, telling us a shit sandwich is prime roast beef.

Scott took the podium amid a blizzard of bad news — high case counts beyond his administration’s projections, unclear forecasts of Covid’s near future, high numbers of hospitalizations, inadequate contact tracing, and outbreaks of cases in public schools. He had explanations for all of it, few of them convincing.

He began by doubling down on his policy of encouraging vaccinations and little else. “This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” he said, pointing to numbers that show the vast majority of severe cases are among the unjabbed. True enough, but just because the odds are better for the vaccinated doesn’t mean the risk is acceptable.

Scott’s message: The blame shouldn’t fall to administration policy, it’s with the stubbornly unvaccinated. If you all would just get your shots, everything would be peachy. There’s truth in that, but he’s doing nothing to get more people vaccinated besides the same old earnest advice. IF he’s putting all his chips on vaccination, he might want to enact policies that incentivize vaccination and disincentivize stubborn resistance.

Scott again insisted that any tougher measures would require a state of emergency, which he again refused to consider. This, despite the fact that rates of cases, hospitalizations and deaths are equal to or greater than levels last seen in the winter of 2021 — when Scott was happy to continue a state of emergency.

He also dipped a toe into the murky waters of surrender. “Covid-19, like the flu, is going to be here for a while,” he said, ignoring the fact that Covid-19 is far more dangerous than your average flu. Unless he meant the deadly Spanish Flu of 1918.

After the jump: Please ignore the facts.

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We Seem to be Turning the Wrong Corner

A startling admission came Friday from Finance Commissioner and Lord High CoronaDamus Mike Pieciak. After weeks of confident predictions that the Delta variant would peak and then decline, Pieciak told Seven Days’ Anne Wallace Allen that actually, he has no idea what’s coming next.

It’s too early, he said, to predict whether Vermont’s COVID-19 infection rate will decline, remain stable, or rise.

Pieciak’s agency produced a chart that underlines his statement.

Yeah, that just about covers the available turf. And leaves completely in the dark about the near future.

I hope Pieciak isn’t in too much trouble with his political masters for this belated bit of honesty. And I hope he faces some tough questions at this week’s gubernatorial press briefing. I’d suggest something along the lines of “WTF, Commissioner?”

Really, there’s too much evidence to the contrary for Pieciak to keep on the sunny side. But it’s a dramatic volte face for the administration. It remains to be seen whether Gov. Phil Scott will finally acknowledge that maybe, possibly, he might have failed to take Delta seriously enough.

There’s abundant evidence that the Scott administration has been far too confident in its Delta policy – or should I say, lack of policy. Let’s start with the weekend Covid counts, which are downright depressing. Three straight days over 200? Dramatically higher 7-day rolling count and weekly total? Ugh.

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Vermont’s Only Medical School Makes an Ass of Itself (UPDATED)

Update: Well, that didn’t take long. The UVM medical school has reportedly withdrawn the offer of credit for the RTL symposium.

Updated Update: It’s now 4:00 pm Monday, and we have yet to hear officially from Larner College. It would seem in the institution’s best interest to put out this fire as quickly as possible. Is there some dithering going on?

You’d think that leaders of a medical school would be smart. Guess not.

The news that the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine is offering continuing education credit for medical professionals who attend a conference of Vermont Right to Life beggars credulity. On just about every level. It’s a PR nightmare, an abdication of professional oversight, and a tacit endorsement of politically-inspired junk science.

Let’s begin by defining “continuing medical education.” According to the American Medical Association, CME is meant to “maintain, develop, or increase the knowledge, skills and professional performance and relationships that a physician uses to provide services for patients, the public or the profession.”

So tell me, how does attending a presentation entitled “The Case Against Proposal 5” (the constitutional amendment protecting reproductive rights) improve a medical professional’s performance in providing services for patients?

That’s the issue, even before we get to the politics of giving credit for a Right to Life event in a strongly pro-choice state, and the dubious “science” concocted by RTL and its allies. There’s no way it’s appropriate to give medical education credit for attending a political meeting of a group that has no connection to the medical profession.

It should also be noted that UVM’s doctors are reimbursed for professional expenses, including CME courses. So presumably, some of the University’s dollars will go into the coffers of Right to Life.

I hope there are some emergency meetings around UVMMC this morning, with learned important people trying to devise a face-saving way out of this shande. Because they need to find one, pronto.

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The Camel’s Nose

That tent feels a lot less roomy now, doesn’t it?

Here’s the problem with “school choice.” It siphons money away from the public school system, which is a bedrock of community life. America’s commitment to providing an education to every child is one of the greatest expressions of our ideals.

When you start opening the to school choice, the money can seem insignificant — like that camel’s nose in your tent. But sooner or later, other parts of the camel will join the party. Eventually, you’ll find yourself outside your tent looking in.

Case in point from across the river: New Hampshire’s new “education freedom accounts” program. It’s billed as a way to help lower-class families send their kids to private school. When it was proposed, Education Commissioner (and failed gubernatorial candidate) Frank Edelblut told state lawmakers the cost of the program would be minimal. He estimated that less than three dozen students would take part. The Legislature swallowed it whole, budgeting $129,000 for the first year of the program.

Just a little nose. Nothing to worry about.

Well, that was obvious bullshit. I mean, if the new program would only attract a handful of participants, why even have the program in the first place? The implementation and management costs would be way out of proportion.

Turns out that Edelblut was either lying through his teeth or dead wrong. The number of participating families in the program’s first year will be north of 1,000, perhaps as high as 1,500. That means the “education freedom” program will cost the state, not $129,000, but as much as $7 million.

As the head of the New Hampshire NEA noted, if a public school system committed that kind of fiscal miscalculation, heads would roll. Edelblut’s is still firmly attached.

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That Was Not An Apology

Can we please stop saying someone “apologized” when they didn’t?

In this case, I’m referring to the VTDigger article entitled “Labor commissioner apologizes to legislators following unemployment benefit snafu.”

That would be Michael Harrington, allegedly apologizing for the administration’s failure to inform lawmakers in a timely manner that the federal government might block a supplemental unemployment benefit enacted by the Legislature. But what he actually did was take the coward’s way out.

Speaking at a hearing on the snafu in question, Harrington said this: “If the primary concern is that we didn’t inform the Legislature in what they feel was a timely manner, I apologize.”

That statement failed on two counts. First, when you put in an “if” you’re diverting responsibility from yourself to the injured party. A real apology doesn’t do that. It simply accepts the blame.

Harrington then blame-shifts some more when he adds “what they feel.”

A real apology would accept all responsibility without reservation. Harrington fudged. Twice.

These non-apology “apologies” are offensive, and non-apologizers shouldn’t get credit for something they didn’t really do.

“Oopsie,” Says the Administration’s Oopsie Master (UPDATED)

Note: Updated below with comments from Gov. Scott.

Welp, the Scott administration, deliberately or otherwise, pulled a fast one on the Legislature. Remember that painfully-negotiated unemployment insurance deal? The one that obtained a supplemental $25/week in UI benefits in exchange for a great big tax break for businesses?

Yeah, well, you’re not getting the 25 bucks. I’ll assume that the businesses still get their [checks notes] $300 million over 10 years.

Yep, Vermont’s jobless — and the Legislature — took it in the shorts.

The problem, as VTDigger’s Fred Thys reports, is that the federal government has ruled that the extra benefit can’t be paid out of the state’s unemployment trust fund.

Here’s where the frequently embattled Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington comes in. He received word on June 14 that the feds might have a problem with the benefit as written.

He informed the Legislature on… wait for it… August 24.

He said he didn’t take action until he got definitive word from the feds. But the delay also meant the Legislature had no chance to take corrective action, which would have been pretty simple. “Hindsight is always 20-20,” Harrington said, unhelpfully.

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It Sure Looks Like the Administration Wasn’t Prepared for the Delta Variant

This week’s news has been very bad for the Scott administration’s reputation for sound management of the Covid pandemic. On Wednesday, Seven Days reported that the state’s contact tracing effort has failed to keep pace with the recent surge in cases. That same day, VTDigger reported that Vermont’s public schools are trying to do contact tracing on their own and are having trouble getting timely advice from the Health Department.

This appears to be a Delta variant phenomenon; the administration’s response was much more robust in earlier phases of the pandemic. Did they get overconfident in early summer, when Covid-19 seemed to be on the wane? Were they over-reliant on the protection offered by widespread vaccination? I’m guessing yes on both counts.

In 2020, Health Department staffers conducted much of the contact tracing, and pulled in other state workers and National Guard troops to assist. This spring the administration outsourced the work to an out-of-state contractor, which was caught unprepared for the arrival of the Delta variant. And the administration has been slow to respond. I have to think they badly underestimated the impact of the Delta surge.

Why do I think that? First, Governor Scott has been very slow to institute tougher measures. Second, his people were slow to realize that Delta would create a need for a vigorous contact tracing system. That became a critical failure as the schools began to reopen.

“Within two weeks, 67 schools should have full contact tracing,” Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said at this week’s Covid briefing. There are 250 public schools in Vermont. Smith is acknowledging that only one-fourth of them will have full contact tracing by late September. That’s appalling.

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Now Comes ACLU-VT, Shootin’ Fire

This summer, we’ve been treated to lamentations by official Burlington — and wildly outlandish claims from rural conservatives — about the onslaught of violent crime that threatens the peace and tranquility of the Queen City (group A) or has turned Burlington into a lawless hellhole (group B).

Well, the ACLU of Vermont is calling bullshit. In a thorough and well-researched letter to Mayor Miro, ACLU-VT’s general counsel Jay Diaz demolishes the lamentations and presents a strong case for the idea that actually, Burlington is a lot safer than it was a few years ago despite the shrinkage in the Police Department.

Man, the facts can be so inconvenient, can’t they?

The letter is well worth reading in its entirety, but here are some highlights.

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A Disturbing Trend in State Covid Stats, and Other Notes on Today’s Presser

This here chart illustrates a troubling development in the last week-plus: Vermont’s initial daily Covid count has been consistently revised upward a day later. Some of the revisions are dramatic. And, as VTDigger reported, the trend continued big-time over the Labor Day weekend. The original case counts for Saturday, Sunday and Monday totaled 242 cases. The one-day-later revised counts totaled 438. Yep, they almost doubled from original report to later revision.

This is problematic in two ways. First, most people who follow this stuff check the daily number on the Covid Dashboard, and that’s all they do. They never spot the revisions. Second, the revisions are not easy to find. They are reflected in the Health Department’s Covid charts, but only if you know where to look. It took me a while, and I’m a frequent Dashboard visitor. It ain’t exactly transparency.

This issue rightfully came up at Gov. Phil Scott’s weekly briefing today. And the answers were, shall we say, less than informative.

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The Senator Floats Serenely Above the Fray

I’ve written about this before, but it took on fresh urgency this week after the Supreme Court’s little knife job on abortion rights. Where is Sen. Patrick Leahy? What is he doing about this?

There are a number of things he could be doing. If he’s limited himself to criticism of the court’s ruling, I’m sorry. That’s no better than “hopes and prayers” right now.

For starters, he needs to spearhead the movement to reform the filibuster. At minimum, we should go back to its traditional form: You have to take the floor and stay there, instead of merely filing an email once a day. The abortion rights bill that Speaker Nancy Pelosi is just empty talk unless there’s serious filibuster reform, because there’s no way the bill would get 10 Republican votes or more.

Leahy is a powerful figure in the Senate, and he has yet to provide a clear statement of his stance on the filibuster. Last time I checked, I got this smidge of boilerplate from pres aide David Carle:

He continues to discuss this with other senators, and there’s a lot of that going on.

Good stuff, that. Especially since the reproductive rights of every woman in a red state are now in the judicial crosshairs. Maybe he could pick up the pace on those discussions?

Leahy is also the senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a past committee chair. He’s in a strong position to push for court reform — adding new justices, reining in the high court’s powers, etc. What’s he doing? Anything?

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