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.
The administration has put great faith in the work of Finance Commissioner and Covid Prognosticator-in-Chief Mike Pieciak. In early August, he predicted that the Delta variant would peak by early September. Perhaps the administration thought the decline would come quickly enough to allow schools to reopen without much tactical support. If so, they were sadly mistaken. Seven Days:
For much of the pandemic, Vermont contact tracers reached infected people within 24 hours of their positive test result more than 90 percent of the time, according to health department data. …With Delta, the rate has fallen off a cliff. Between August 1 and 28, contact tracers reached only 37 percent of people who tested positive within 24 hours of their diagnosis. It took even longer to notify close contacts.
Many states outsourced contact tracing this spring. Now, those contractors are overwhelmed and, in a tight labor market, having trouble upstaffing. Seven Days reports that in mid-August, the administration began reassigning Health Department staff to the contact tracing effort. Trouble is, this is a big slow transition. By the time contact tracing can be fully upstaffed, the Delta variant will have done its damage.
As the schools struggle to keep pace — and keep the doors open, in line with Scott administration policy — they can’t count on the Health Department to provide timely advice. According to VTDigger, school officials could get immediate answers during the 2020-21 school year. This fall, not so much.
Now, many say it’s often days before they can get someone on the phone. That means administrators — or, if the district is lucky enough to find one, school nurses — are left to themselves to interpret scant written guidance from the state in variable and fast-moving situations.
Scott and his officials continue to promote vaccination as the best preventative. It is, to be sure. But schoolchildren aren’t yet eligible and won’t be for months. And vaccination isn’t a cure-all. The virus can still be transmitted, and the vaccinated can still get sick. It’s true that the vaccine prevents most serious illnesses; but (a) it doesn’t prevent all of them, (b) even so, Covid is no walk in the park and (c) we’re learning some scary stuff about long Covid. I don’t think we yet know how effective the vaccines are at preventing long-term complications. And I’d hate to find out the hard way.
It’s quite possible that we will get through this without serious repercussions. But the administration’s reputation for Covid competency looks a little shaky for the first time. Vermont governors, even the most popular, eventually go the way of Ozymandias. The current situation may pass into the mists of memory, or it may be the first sign that the worm is turning on Phil Scott.