Phil Scott’s Biggest Gamble

In the face of rising Covid-19 numbers, Gov. Phil Scott has stood fast on his pandemic policy. He has offered recommendations instead of mandates, and refused to set new restrictions on, say, indoor dining or tourism. In doing so, he has cited evidence that the Delta variant declines several weeks after onset.

To be honest, I go back and forth on the direness of the current situation, as I read a reassuring story or an alarming statistic. But here’s one thing I do know: This is the biggest gamble Phil Scott has ever taken as governor. Bigger than the gun bills, bigger than vetoing three budgets in two years. His handling of the pandemic has made him politically untouchable. If the Delta variant doesn’t turn the corner by Labor Day or so, he risks losing everything he has gained in the last 18 months.

A couple of weeks ago, Finance Commissioner and Chief Covid Projector Michael Pieciak cited the track record of the Delta variant: An alarming increase followed by a decline five to seven weeks later. The governor is betting that Vermont will follow the same path.

We’re roughly at the five-week mark now. Schools are about to reopen with no mask mandate and no vaccines for kids under 12. We are about to see if our experience matches Scott’s optimism. If it doesn’t, then Scott will get the blame — just as he has gotten the lion’s share of the credit for managing the pandemic so far.

This is where we are now, in a graph from the New York Times:

If the administration is right, we’re at the peak of the Delta outbreak or very close to it. But that’s a projection. What we know right now is that our current caseload is getting close to peak pandemic levels.

Pieciak is right on the general course of Delta outbreaks. But does it always happen? The jury’s still out on that one. This NPR story about the Delta outbreak in Israel should send a shiver down your spine. In terms of vaccination, Israel is the Vermont of all nations. It was the first to vaccinate a majority of its population. But it’s seeing what NPR called “a dramatic surge” of Delta variant cases.

Israel is still on the upward curve, and could see cases fall in that magical 5-7 week window. But maybe it won’t. The article cites evidence that vaccine efficacy drops about six months after administration. In Israel, that coincided with the rise of the Delta variant. Vermont, as an early vaccine adopter among states, is on that same trajectory. Will Israel’s caseload diminish over time? We can’t know for sure.

As always, the governor insists that all his decisions are based on science and data. And as always, I’m skeptical about that assertion. In fact, it would be well within his job description to consider economic factors as well. He does bear responsibility for Vermont’s prosperity as well as its public health. And I think he has had an eye on the economy. He doesn’t want to bring it to a screeching halt once again. He doesn’t want to kill the tourism trade for the second summer in a row.

Besides, it’s not in his nature to override individual choice. He issued mandates after Covid’s onset and through the worst days of the winter, but only when facing an emergency. He’d rather not do so again.

And maybe his success has gone to his head, just a little. Hubris is a treacherous beastie.

As someone who’s been vaccinated but remain in a high-risk cohort, I’m not taking any chances. I’m minimizing the amount of time away from home. I’m masking up whenever I’m indoors, and often when I’m outdoors. I still haven’t eaten in a restaurant since last March, and I won’t do so anytime soon. If the Legislature were reconvening right now, I wouldn’t be spending any time inside the Statehouse hotbox.

I know the vaccine substantially lowers the risk of catching the disease and of serious illness, but honestly, I don’t want to catch even a “mild” case. It can still be a wretched experience. And then there’s the chance of contracting long Covid, of which I want no part whatsoever.

Personally, I can’t completely buy the administration’s assurances. I wouldn’t advise anyone else at risk to do so either. That includes vaccinated people with other risk factors, vaccinated people who are in regular contact with those at higher risk, or anyone who isn’t yet eligible for the vaccine. Including all the 5-12-year-olds in Vermont who are about to go back to school.

You add all that up, and it’s a whole lot of people. Almost certainly a majority of our population.

The governor is probably right in saying that the Delta outbreak will dwindle away in the near future. But it’s a big gamble. The downside is much lower than the upside is high. And his bet includes not only his own political prospects, but the health of all Vermonters. For all our sakes, I hope he’s right.

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