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?

If I’d been the questioner, I would have told Scott to stick his request for self-censorship where the sun don’t shine. Unfortunately, Petenko caved.

“I mean, I’ve put, um, your recommendation, put an indoor mask on, in pretty much every press conference story I’ve written,” she replied.

She’s a good reporter. She ought to stick up for herself.

Later on, the Vermont Business Journal’s Tim McQuiston weighed in with another question about the economic harm of Covid coverage — in this case, news about the Omicron variant. Caring fellow, that McQuiston.

Scott used the occasion to toss another brick through the plate glass window of a free press.

There were some news organizations last week that wanted to create more controversy , and I think that the markets are hypersensitive right now and reactive because they heard bad news… It’s just unfortunate. When the news gets out just to create controversy, it does harm. And I think they did some harm to the economy.

I’m sure there were reports that overemphasized the potential danger of Omicron, but really now. Should the press withhold bad news if it might hurt the economy? In that case, let’s censor all coverage of climate change. For that matter, let’s censor coverage of Wall Street whenever the Dow takes a fall.

I also don’t appreciate Scott’s inference that the press was only out to “create controversy” instead of wanting to, I don’t know, report the news?

This is another low point for the former Governor Nice Guy.

But hey, I guess he’s got reason to be stressed out. As Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine pointed out, the Omicron variant is going to hit Vermont sooner or later, probably sooner, and we don’t know how bad it will be. And the current situation is plenty bad. We racked up another 1600-plus cases over the holiday weekend. Our test positivity rate climbed to 4.7%. Hospitalizations and ICU admissions are at or near pandemic highs.

It’s clear that the administration is really sweating the hospitalization numbers. Recently, Scott noted that about 10-15% of ICU cases were patients with Covid, and we’d be in trouble if the number approached 25%.

Well, today he said that figure was now 20%, so we’re getting close to the breaking point. If we aren’t there already. And Pandemic Prognosticator Michael Pieciak said we can’t expect to see any decrease in the numbers for another four weeks — which would take us to the onset of a likely post-holidays spike in cases. In truth, we can’t expect any decrease — and we can’t rule out an increase — before mid-January at the earliest. By then, we’re sure to be dealing with Omicron, and nobody knows how bad that will be.

As a result of all that, Scott and his officials are taking multiple steps to add capacity and decrease demand. They heavily promoted the use of monoclonal antibody treatment as a way to avoid hospitalization. They’re working with hospitals to create — and staff — extra hospital and ICU beds. They’re creating dozens of subacute care beds to decrease demand for hospital beds.

Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said that hospitals might have to make choices about non-Covid procedures in order to preserve capacity. Indeed, the University of Vermont Medical Center announced Tuesday that “Elective surgeries will be limited through the end of the year” to keep beds available for Covid cases.

Earlier this fall, when the feds approved Covid vaccines for kids aged 5-11, I wrote that this might be the development that gets the governor off the hook. That notion was premature to say the least. Now, we’re once again scraping the guard rails and hoping to avoid disaster. And we’re overlooking the long-term implications of long Covid, which will hit thousand up on thousands of Vermonters — perhaps as many as 20,000.

But I must apologize. I’m reporting bad news. That makes me part of the real problem. It’s not the pandemic; it’s those who choose to report the inconvenient truth about it. Shame on me.

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