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.
WCAX’s Calvin Cutler was the first to be called upon. His first question was about the three state troopers who allegedly forged vaccination cards. After that, he asked why so many daily case counts have been revised significantly upward.
“I had the same question,” said Scott. “They came in late in the day.” Which, as we would later learn, meant that lab reports have been coming in too late to get into the initial count, so they get added afterward.
I’m sure that’s true, but it doesn’t answer the real question: Why has it only been happening in the past 10 days or so? What is new or different about the process, if anything?
Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said that the state is making some changes in software and adding more people to process the lab reports. That’s fine. But I still don’t know why it’s suddenly started to happen at a time when the Scott administration has staked its reputation on an imminent end to the Delta wave. When the daily reports consistently get revised upward, it naturally raises suspicions that somebody is cooking the books, or at least putting them under a heat lamp for a day or two.
There were no follow-ups on this point. As I tweeted today, the Covid briefing format doesn’t lend itself to follow-ups. Each reporter has a place in line, and each comes with their own questions to ask. They understandably want to ask their questions instead of pursuing a single subject. Subsequent reporters have their own questions, and rarely return to a previous topic. Also, these are called Covid briefings, but they are Scott’s only interactions with the press. Other inquries take up a lot of Question Time.
The format does allow for remote access, which is nice and democratic. But the pre-Covid in-person pressers left room for a freer interchange: If an answer was unclear, it would be challenged. That’s much more difficult in the current format.
Much later in the briefing, VTDigger’s Erin Petenko brought up my second concern. “How do you inform the public of changes?” she asked. “I haven’t seen any Health Department announcements in any form. People who check the Dashboard don’t see the updates. Could you be more proactive about informing the public?”
Neither Scott nor Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine answered the question. At all.
“God forbid anyone is looking at these numbers and basing any life decision on a 24-hour period in the Covid pandemic,” said Levine, missing the point entirely. It’s ridiculous to assert that anybody is making life decisions based on a single day’s count. When people visit the Dashboard, they’re looking for accurate information on the spread of the pandemic. They want to know what the hell is going on, to quote a certain former president. “Can we do better?” Levine continued. “Yes, and we’re making improvements.” Which, again, isn’t what Petenko asked.
For the sake of its own reputation, the administration needs to be transparent about changes in the count, especially when they’re this big and this one-sided. As I said up top, the only way to get the corrected totals is to dig deep into the Dashboard and make a minute examination of the daily-case chart. Nowhere is it noted that a change was made, nor how big it was.
Maybe this is all absolutely above-board. But any public body needs to project an image of openness and trustworthiness. Otherwise, they risk losing the public’s faith.
Also, they’re misleading the people, if you’re concerned about that sort of thing.
A couple of additional points from the presser. In a lengthy prepared statement, Levine indulged in a bit of both-sidesing. “The challenge of the Delta surge has rekindled passions and at times divisiveness” for and against masking and vaccines. Well, there’s passion on both sides, but just about all the divisiveness comes from the antis. I think that’s what Levine was getting at — he went on to criticize those who’ve disrupted school board meetings, and we know who those people are — but he shouldn’t shy away from of the truth. Unless his political masters purged his prepared statement of any specifics about the source of this “divisiveness.”
Finally, Finance Commissioner and Covid Forecaster-In-Chief Michael Pieciak offered a handful of statistics that indicated the Delta wave is finally ebbing. At the same time, he cautioned everyone not to jump to conclusions. Which is good, because the stats were not exactly comforting. And time is running out on his earlier prediction that Delta would recede seven to nine weeks after onset. As one reporter noted, that time has pretty much come and gone.
Pieciak said that the state’s seven-day rolling average has finally been trending downward over the past five days. That’s nice, but far from dispositive. The daily counts remain in triple digits. There might be a trend, but it’s too soon to tell.
He also pointed to downward trends in Chittenden and Washington Counties, which have been hit especially hard by Delta. Chittenden’s counts, he said, have declined by 34% since August 14. Washington is down 24% since August 30.
Why the two different dates? He didn’t offer and nobody asked. I suspect that those dates represented the two counties’ highest tides, and they make the declines look as dramatic as possible.
This kind of selective citation has been common practice by the Scott administration during the Summer of Delta. It makes things look good in the short term, but it can erode the administration’s reputation for honesty. Throughout the first year-plus of the pandemic, that’s been one of its most precious assets.