This Has Been a Bad Week for Phil Scott Exceptionalism

A couple of fresh stains have appeared on Gov. Phil Scott’s reputation for managing the pandemic. First is the mass outbreak at the Newport prison, second is Scott’s turnabout on vaccinating school and child care workers — one day after President Biden had ordered all 50 states to prioritize educators.

First, the bad (and utterly predictable) news from the Northern State Correctional Facility. Long-serving interim Corrections Commissioner James Baker said the prison “is now being treated like a hospital” after a round of testing produced 100 positives among inmates and another eight among facility staff.

Gee, who woulda thought. An outbreak among people forced to live indoors in tight conditions with iffy sanitary standards? You don’t say.

The inmates deserved better. Whatever their offenses, they are under state custody with no right or ability to take their own precautions against coronavirus. The state has an obligation to protect people under its care. The culture-change-in-progress DOC failed in that regard. And it failed because higher-ups in the Scott administration have refused to prioritize vulnerable inmates.

They still do, even after the outbreak at Newport.

Now, it’s admittedly tough to make these decisions. A lot of groups make persuasive claims for vaccine priority. But a few points to consider:

Since the onset of the pandemic, jails and prisons have been notorious hot spots. The Scott administration has refused to recognize this fact.

It’s not an out-of-left-field policy choice. As of early January, seven states (including Massachusetts) had given inmates a higher priority. Numerous social justice policy groups have advocated the move, as has that hotbed of radicalism, the American Medical Association. And the New York City Bar. And the Boston Globe. In Oregon, a federal magistrate ordered the state to push inmates to the front of the line.

I could go on, but that’s enough.

Point two: It’s a small population with just about the simplest possible logistics. These are people who are perpetually in the same building. Or, in the case of staff, they’re there for at least eight hours a pop. It wouldn ‘t take much to do the job. Hell, it would have been a lot easier (and cheaper) than dealing with a mass outbreak.

Point three: We’ve been hearing for years about the graying of Vermont’s inmate population. I don’t know how many inmates would qualify right now based on age or other risk factors, but I’m sure it’s a considerable number.

Oh, and point four: It’s the right thing to do.

As for Scott’s 180 on school and child care personnel, it might seem noble but it’s not. It was mandated one day earlier by the federal government. The governor and his top officials somehow didn’t mention that fact when they announced the new policy on Tuesday.

For all his insistence that schools and child care facilities need to reopen as quickly as possible, Scott was a laggard when it came to vaccinations. At least 30 states had prioritized school and child care workers before President Biden made it a national policy. And now that the President has done so, our governor gets no brownie points for going along.

This is of a piece with Scott’s overall record on Covid-19. He was near the top when compared to the Trump administration or most of the states. But if you compare him with other countries, he’s pretty much in the middle. Until January 20, the United States had done far worse than most other countries. We have 4% of the world’s population but 25% of its Covid cases. Our death rate is proportionately high. The governor is in a classroom full of low achievers being graded on a curve.

Good on him for being less obstinate than Kristi Noem or Greg Abbott or Ron DeSantis, and for being less malevolent than Andrew Cuomo. He is to be credited for taking the pandemic more seriously than many of his peers. But that’s all. He’s no saint and he’s no hero. He’s competent.

Mostly.

On managing prisons and vaccinating educators, he falls short of that minimal standard.

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