Phil’s Funny Figgers Factory

Well, if the governor is spouting fake optimism and citing carefully curated statistics, it must be Tuesday. This week, Gov. Phil Scott and his team had to admit that the Omicron variant is about to hit Vermont just as the holidays arrive. The combination will almost certainly trigger another several weeks of high case counts — higher than ever before — and overburdened health care workers.

So, in the face of all that bad news, Scott kicked off the presser by reminding us all of how much better off we are now than in December 2020 thanks to his administration’s wise policymaking and the innate goodness of Vermonters, who can be trusted to Do The Right Thing without any orders from above.

Sure, if you make the comparison right there. No one would dispute that Scott handled the first 15-odd months of the pandemic very well. But his convenient comparison elides the fact that his handling of the Delta variant has been woefully bad. His administration has consistently underestimated the impact of Delta, which has meant policies that have proved inadequate to the task or too little, too late.

There was hardly any mention of last week’s hot statistic: Scott’s claim that only 5% of adult Vermonters are unvaccinated. I’ve previously documented some of the holes in that figure; Middlebury College physicist Eilat Glikman exposed another one on Twitter:

I used the numbers on the Vermont vaccine dashboard to compute the actual percentage of adults >18yo who are vaccinated in the state. The answer is 81% not 95%.

On Monday morning, I emailed Health Department spokesman Ben Truman asking for an explanation of how the dashboard percentages were calculated and what figure they are using for the population of Vermont. I have yet to receive an answer. (Finance Commissioner and Chief Number Cruncher Michael Pieciak may have dropped a hint; he off-handedly referred to Vermont’s population as around 630,000. The latest Census count is 643,000.)

The magic number of 5% got no mention in the administration’s extensive opening remarks. It did arise during the Q&A, when a reporter brought up (in broad terms) the problems with it. Scott responded with an aggressive defense of his favorite statistic. Unfortunately, the reporter didn’t arm himself with enough facts to question Scott’s bold-faced assertiveness. Nor did he or anyone else query Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine on the public health usefulness of that figure: How valuable, in terms of measuring our Covid resistance, is it to count only those over 18? Why count those who’ve received as little as a single dose, when the administration is urging everyone to get the full course plus a booster? How much protection does a single dose offer?

No answers to any of that. No reporter armed themselves with the information necessary to effectively query the administration.

There were, as usual, more statistical follies on offer.

For the fourth week in a row, Education Secretary Dan French offered a different statistic on the “Test to Stay” program. This time it was the total number of tests conducted, which of course was the highest total to date because the program is still being rolled out after nearly four months of school. He didn’t offer numbers on how many districts are conducting tests, how many have opted out or curtailed activity because of staffing shortfalls, or how many hires have been made through the outside contractor who’s supposedly supplying districts with temporary staffing.

The shifting measures, needless to say, make it impossible to measure the real progress of the program.

Scott officials warned of the coming impact of the Omicron variant, which is now responsible for 73% of new cases nationwide, 92% in New York and New Jersey and a mushrooming share of the total in Quebec. So far, Omicron has only caused 38% of new cases in New England, so we’re just beginning to see the mayhem the variant will cause.

“Vermont is one of the only states that has seen cases go down in the last couple of weeks, but they will go up again and we’ll see more breakthroughs,” said Scott.

“We anticipate cases will rise due to holiday gatherings and Omicron,” Pieciak said. He noted that in the post-holiday period last winter, case counts increased by about 50%. That would get us to a daily average of 800, he said, and some days over 1,000. He didn’t add that the 2020/1 post-holiday boom got that high without a new, more virulent strain of the virus.

Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said the Omicron explosion will keep cases high for “several weeks,” which, depending on your definition of “several,” could take us into February.

The only “good” news on offer was that hospitalizations and ICU cases have moderated from recent extreme levels, and the state is getting more hospital help from outside the state: a total of 30 FEMA staffers plus 16 more from private contractors. That’s the real measure according to Team Scott: As long as people aren’t turned away from hospital doors or parked on gurneys in hallways, things are just fine.

Then Scott did a graceful pirouette back to evidence-free optimism. Those FEMA staffers will only be here for two weeks, which would barely help with a post-holiday surge. He was asked if their stay might be extended. “Possibly,” he said, “but if the numbers continue to level out, we may not need them.”

Butbutbut YOU YOURSELF AND ALL YOUR PEOPLE SAID CASES ARE ABOUT TO EXPLODE. Oh, why do I bother?

In a tacit acknowledgment that more action is needed, Scott and his team made a strong case for the private sector to do what Scott himself will not: Impose vaccine-or-weekly-test mandates for employees and, in public-facing businesses, for customers as well.

My favorite howler of the day came when Scott was asked if more could be done to target the least-vaccinated age cohort: those between age 18 and 29. The governor said that if bars were to voluntarily impose restrictions, that might get the message to those young adults. That seems, um, a bit disrespectful of young adults’ priorities, but whatever.

Underneath it all is the contradictory notion that mandates by every employer and public-facing business in the state would help end the pandemic, but the same actions by the state would be ineffective. “It would create controversy” if the state required vaccinations, Scott said. As if it won’t “create controversy” at the doors of businesses that try to do what the state will not.

Oh, one more goodie. Human Services Secretary Mike Smith insisted that the administration had planned for high testing demand around the holidays, in the face of repeated questions about people not being able to find tests or make timely appointments. Eventually Scott weighed in with the notion that a lot of folks bought testing kits for Christmas gifts, and that the supply woes (which Smith insists aren’t real) might vanish on Christmas Day.

Two things. First, Scott offers no evidence that this has happened. And second, buying test kits for Christmas is a dumb idea because the tests will only do any good if conducted before the actual holiday.

Scott closed with a cheery note. “Reflect for a moment on all the good that’s still out there in the world. If you can’t find it, maybe you should create it.”

Happy thoughts, people. Please stop badgering the man behind the curtain.

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