Vermont’s “Test to Stay” Program is Late, Incomplete, and Not Nearly as Effective as It Could Be

When listening to Gov. Phil Scott’s weekly Covid briefings, it’s important to read between the lines. That’s because the bad news is concealed — sometimes cleverly, sometimes incompetently — in carefully-crafted statements that seem like good news but really aren’t.

Case in point: Education Secretary Dan French’s weekly foray into rhetorical misdirection concerning Vermont’s Test to Stay program, in which students who might be at risk are tested upon arrival at school. If they’re negative, they get to stay.

That is, if your school is actually offering the program. We’re three full months into the school year now, and Test to Stay remains very much a work in progress. If French were graded on his performance, he’d get an “Incomplete” and an admonishment to apply himself if he wants to pass.

Tuesday afternoon, French ambled to the lectern, removed his mask, and told us that 43 school districts — 73% of total districts — are enrolled in Test to Stay.

Note the word “enrolled.” They’ve signed up, and that’s all we know. French offered no numbers on how many schools are actively engaged in TTS. Those enrolled districts, he said, have either started testing or are awaiting supplies. Again, no breakdown was offered.

A reminder that the Scott administration didn’t launch TTS until after the beginning of the school year. It’s been playing catch-up ever since.

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Scott to Critics: Please Shut Up

For Gov. Phil Scott, that “freedom of the press” stuff has become awfully inconvenient. On multiple occasions during this week’s Covid briefing, he basically told critics and reporters they should keep quiet for the good of the state.

“Having the continued debate about whether [masks] should be mandated… is just making the problem worse from my standpoint,” Scott said. “It’s dividing people even further, it’s hardening people further.”

So by Scott’s reckoning, anyone who publicly disagrees with him is doing harm to the state. And if you think I’m being unfair, let’s scroll down to where VTDigger’s Erin Petenko asked Scott about an essay by former Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen advocating for an indoor mask mandate.

We judt have a difference of opinion on that. What we do share in a common goal, I think Dr. Chen would probably agree, is that we want people to wear masks when they’re indoors. So let’s focus on the area where we agree, and not keep focusing on the controversial mask mandate.

Which is a gross misrepresentation of Dr. Chen’s position. But we’ll leave that aside and get to the governor’s kicker.

Erin, you could be very helpful in this regard.

Oh, so now it’s the press’s duty to support administration policy? Is that what you’re saying? Really?

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Tim Ashe Respectfully Requests You Ignore That Stupid Thing He Tweeted

Oops, that’s the other Ash

Tim Ashe, former Senate President Pro Tem and current deputy state auditor, stepped right into it Sunday afternoon. He immediately tried to step back, but the shit was plastered all over his shoe.

Ashe, who is widely expected to run for [insert office here] sometime soon, put out a Tweet criticizing Democrats (not directly by name; he might be running in a party primary any day now) for failing to enact paid family leave.

Nice try. The problem is, as anyone who’s been following Vermont politics for more than about five minutes knows, is that under his leadership the Senate was the biggest obstacle in the path of paid leave. For several years running, as Democrats were trying to enact paid leave and a minimum wage increase, the House favored leave and the Senate favored wage. Each effectively stood in the way of the other. And Ashe repeatedly raised objections to paid leave.

After a bunch of Tweeters called him out, Ashe quickly deleted the tweet. Unfortunately for him, screenshots are a thing.

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The Human Dog Whistle

Vermont’s two major parties (sorry, Progs, I don’t buy the legal definition) have chosen new chairs. The Democrats won the big prize with Anne Lezak, an organizer and fundraiser by trade and a successful party builder. (Upcoming post will feature a deeper dive on Lezak.)

The Republicans got… this guy. Paul Dame, financial planner and former one-term state lawmaker. Dame’s party building strategy is two-pronged: Posting commentary videos on YouTube with all the professionalism on display in the above screenshot, and blowing all the dog whistles as hard as he can.

Yeah, while Lezak is actually doing her job, Dame is out here trying to “win the news cycle” with bad videos and cutely-worded statements. Which, considering how many Vermonters actually pay attention to this stuff, is slightly more effective than howling into the void. (He’s posted four videos on YouTube; they’ve averaged 82 views apiece as of this writing. Wow.)

Dame’s first big dog whistle was the first event under his chairship: the “Let’s Go, Brandon” rally, supposedly a nod to his hometown but actually a thinly-veiled callout to the most childish instincts of conservative Republicanism. It worked, insofar as it got him a spot on the Howie Carr Show and some coverage in the Pavlovian political press.

Now he’s blowing the dog whistle for the conspiratorial Flavor of the Month, critical race theory.

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The Health Care Crisis is Already Here

Did you know that the Scott administration Covid policy isn’t aimed at reducing illness? Nope, they don’t care about that. The governor himself has said, over and over, that his goal is to prevent Vermont’s health care system from being overwhelmed. As long as the caseload is manageable, he’s fine.

Well, yeah, he’s fine.

But there’s a problem with that “set the bar low and jump over it” policy goal. It’s already failing. The health care system is already in crisis. It just hasn’t completely blown up yet.

And that’s only because of heroic and unsustainable efforts by health care workers and staff. The administration is desperately trying to patch things together and prevent a total blowup, and that’s all it cares about. Human Services Secretary Mike Smith has taken to giving weekly updates on efforts to add more subacute inpatient beds (to hustle patients out of the hospital as quickly as possible) and ICU beds — and the state is paying God knows how much to staff those extra beds.

I’ve also heard that the University of Vermont Medical Center is relying heavily on temporary nurses because it’s so short-staffed. If that’s the case at our crown jewel, imagine what’s happening in smaller facilities. Temporary nurses are in such high demand that they can almost write their own tickets, and the temp-staff agencies are making out like bandits. (Those agencies charge up to 100% of the staffer’s salary.)

The administration is willing to do anything, at any cost, because they don’t want to see Covid patients parked in emergency rooms or triaged for lack of resources. It’s not about quality of care of public health, it’s about avoiding a PR nightmare.

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Who’s Playing Politics Now?

When, in my previous post I chronicled the ways in which Gov. Phil Scott has demonstrably been Not a Nice Guy, I omitted at least one: How passive-aggressive, how positively pissy he gets when answering his critics. That trait was on full display at this week’s Covid-19 press briefing. (Available on YouTube, in case that 10-hour Norwegian train video is too much for your blood pressure.)

Otherwise, the briefing was another dismal affair. The statistics don’t look good, and Scott had to acknowledge that they’re about to get worse because of the Thanksgiving holiday. For a week or two, he said. Which, he did not add, gets us to the year-end holidays, office parties and family gatherings, which means we can’t realistically expect any improvement in the numbers until at least mid-January.

In other happy tidings, Scott was asked how many Vermonters were still vulnerable to infection because they were unvaccinated or hadn’t gained a measure of immunity through contracting Covid. He admitted to asking the same question himself. “I kept wondering how much wood is left to fuel this fire,” he said, “and the answer was higher than I expected.”

Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine filled in the specifics: About 50,000 unvaccinated adults, about half of the 44,000 kids between ages 5-11, plus children under age 5 who can’t be vaccinated yet. “There still is, as the governor kind of alluded to, plenty of fresh, uninfected people who have never been vaccinated that this virus can still find. And it is very adept at finding them,” Levine said.

Hm. Whatever you think about metaphorically comparing vulnerable Vermonters to firewood or fresh meat, that’s an admission that Scott’s vaccinate-first, vaccinate-always strategery was kind of doomed from the beginning. We are, to his credit, at the top of the national rankings in vaccinations… and yet, here we are with plenty of “wood” to burn and a growing pile of case counts, hospitalizations and deaths.

Wood, pile? See what I di… never mind. Back to Pissy Phil.

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Cold Hearted Man

OK, so everybody knows that Phil Scott is a Nice Guy (copyright pending)… but is he really?

His performance throughout the pandemic has varied from creditable (the first 15 months) to misguided (the Delta variant), but there’s been one constant throughout: a lack of human connection.

I don’t recall him ever expressing sympathy or empathy for those felled by Covid. I don’t recall him ever saying the name of a Covid victim or visiting a grieving family. I don’t recall him ever visiting a hospital or long-term care facility to express support to patients, family and staff. I don’t recall any visits to schools or day care facilities whose staffs are overtaxed by the pandemic workload. For that matter, I can’t recall him ever admitting that he badly underestimated the Delta variant. Which he did.

It’s not at all what a Nice Guy would do.

So why is that? Is he a lot less of a N.G. than everyone thought? Is it a pure political calculation? Does he think that if he acknowledges the human toll of the pandemic in any way, it would undercut his message of Getting Back to Normal?

Well, it can’t be politics, because you know how quick he is to criticize others for “playing politics.” He couldn’t possibly be doing the same.

Yeah, right.

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Thanks, Phil: R.I.P. TCI

This shouldn’t cost much to fix

We’re screwed, aren’t we?

In a year when the effects of climate change have become undeniable (the latest example being the extreme flooding in British Columbia), a New England multistate compact to cut greenhouse gas emissions from transportation has officially collapsed.

And I’d like to pause here and thank Gov. Phil Scott for his part in killing the once-promising Transportation and Climate Initiative.

TCI, proposed by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, is dead. Baker pulled the plug yesterday because no other New England state had committed to the compact, which rendered it null and void. The last straw was the withdrawal of Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, who said TCI was “a pretty tough rock to push when gas prices are so high.”

Yeah, we’re screwed. If gas prices in the low to mid $3.00 range are enough to kill a significant emission reduction initiative, we’re never going to slow the onrush of climate change. Even when our rational minds know full well that paying more thank three bucks a gallon is pocket change compared to the costs of global warming — such as repairing the highway washout pictured above, which is one of dozens now facing British Columbia.

Our governor didn’t pound the final nail in TCI’s coffin, but he did more than his share to make sure it never came to life. Remember that the next time you see images from Vermont like the B.C. washout seen above.

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Phil Scott’s Covid “Compromise” Is Even Worse Than I Thought

It’s bad enough that Gov. Phil Scott offered an “olive branch” that put every local elected official in the crosshairs of the masking debate. It’s bad enough that he can shirk all responsibility because hey, he offered a proposal! It’s bad enough that legislative leaders fell for his little trap, which means a special session on Monday for the sole purpose of passing a bill strictly adhering to his demands. It’s bad enough that the House will have to meet in person, subjecting its many elders — and parents with young children — to coronavirus exposure. It’s bad enough that we’ll spend $50,000 or more for the special session.

But you know the topper on this shit sandwich? It’s completely unnecessary.

This was brought to my attention through Robert Oeser’s Twitter feed, so full credit to him. Oeser pointed out that there is already a law on the books that allows communities to enact their own, purely local mask mandates. Specifically, this passage from 18 V.S.A. § 613:

(a) A local board of health may make and enforce rules in such town or city relating to the prevention, removal, or destruction of public health hazards and the mitigation of public health risks, provided that such rules have been approved by the Commissioner. Such rules shall be posted and published in the same manner that ordinances of the municipality are required to be posted and published.

See, it’s already there. Scott’s version is essentially the same. So why all the folderol? Why all the travel and the expense of a special session?

Because Scott is, once again, ducking responsibility.

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Will the Witness For Synthetic Turf Please Take the Stand?

Last month I brought you news of Michael Shively, professional “expert” on sex trafficking and staunch foe of decriminalizing sex work. He took the mic at Burlington and Montpelier City Council meetings, delivered his spiel, and got quite a bit of coverage in the media. More than he deserved. His credentials went unquestioned in press coverage. In truth, he represents an organization that sprung out of the religious right and has fought not only sex trafficking but also pornography, sex toys and birth control.

Well, now we’ve got another professional expert whose credentials should not be accepted at face value. Meet Laura Green, PhD., who has represented the synthetic turf industry and developers of synthetic turf athletic fields on numerous occasions. Her take is that synthetic turf is not at all harmful. It’s just a bunch of inert ingredients, nothing to see here, please move along.

Green does have solid credentials in the field of toxicology, but she has been a paid expert on only one side of the synthetic turf issue. Many experts and environmentalists do not agree with her view. Truth is, the necessary research on the safety of turf has yet to be done. It’s an open question.

Green recently paid a digital visit to Vermont, specifically the board of Mount Anthony Union High School down Bennington way. The board has proposed covering a dilapidated field with synthetic turf. Green spoke at a special meeting about the plan on October 25. Her expertise was taken pretty much at face value by trustees and the local press. (The Bennington Banner both-sidesed the hearing, which is always the shortest route to fake objectivity.)

Before proceeding any further, I should note that the plan has been derailed, at least for now. On November 3 district voters rejected the proposal, most likely over its cost. School officials are deciding what to do next; the field needs attention one way or another. Synthetic turf remains an option.

Back to the witness for Big Turf.

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