This week’s Covid briefing was devoted to moving the conversation toward that long-sought-after pivot from pandemic to endemic. There were the usual rote reports of vaccination, school policy, forecasting, mask and test distribution &c., but the administration’s heart wasn’t in it.
The big tell came right at the beginning, when Gov. Phil Scott announced he had nothing to say about Covid-19. Instead, he pivoted to a brief repetition of his favorite policy points — workforce, technical training, how to spend federal Covid relief money and the surplus in the Education Fund (TL;DR: “not on public schools”).
I realize the numbers are coming down, as they inevitably had to. But isn’t it just a little bit early to start the George Aiken process of declaring victory and going home? After all, ICU admissions have yet to decline and deaths are still on the increase. Perhaps the briefest of pauses would be wise.
Of course, it’s almost certain that hospitalizations and deaths will decline within a few weeks. But let’s not get carried away. We’re returning to a decidedly unhealthy baseline. The positive view of our numbers is that we are getting back to, ahem, the bad old days of the Delta variant. That’s no cause for celebration.
Let’s go back to July, when daily case counts were still in double digits. In early August, when the Delta variant was taking over, we crossed the 100-daily-case threshold By mid-September, we surpassed 200 cases per day. October saw occasional spikes over 300, and our daily average went over 300 by mid-November. A month later the daily average was above 400.
That’s when Omicron arrived. In less than a month’s time we surpassed 2,000 cases per day. Now we’re back down into the mid-three figures. Two months ago, these totals were cause for concern bordering on alarm. Now those same numbers are a sign of “progress,” and the administration takes them as grounds for post-pandemic optimism.
Scott and his minions are beating the drum for the old “pandemic to endemic” model, when we learn to “live with” Covid and allow our lives to return to normal, whatever that means. Maybe that’s where we’re headed, but I have my doubts about exactly how normal our new reality will be. At the very least it means routine vaccination boosters, a constant lookout for new variants, and restrictions on daily life for the most vulnerable.
In an op-ed posted by the Philadelphia Inquirer, two members of the Biden-Harris transition team’s Covid policy group describe their vision of post-pandemic policy. It’s a multifactorial approach that doesn’t depend solely on vaccination. They say we’d have to get 90% or more of the population with some level of immunity for that single policy focus to succeed. We remain far from that goal and, given political realities, it’s doubtful we’ll ever get there short of tough vaccine mandates.
Failing that, they say, our approach must include ventilation, air filtration, masking, and testing in addition to vaccination. “All buildings, including offices, schools, restaurants, and bars, should work to upgrade their air-handling systems to increase intake of outside air and use of efficient filters,” they write. That’s not only to fight the current iteration of Covid, but the new variants that will inevitably arrive and the unknown pandemics of the future.
So far, our governor has resisted such an approach. He certainly hasn’t made any provision for ventilation and filtration in his proposals for spending federal Covid relief funds.
Scott also downplays or ignores the needs of our most medically vulnerable: the seemingly disposable Old Folks with all their pesky health problems; the people admitted to hospitals “with Covid” rather than “because of Covid,” a distinction with no meaning whatsoever to the patients; and the disability community. As author and disability rights activist Emily Ladau told NPR:
“Disabled people have been sounding the alarm since the earliest days of the pandemic about the immense risks and about our fears of being left behind… Going into year three of this pandemic, disabled people are still in a position where we need to convince the world that our lives are worth living.”
The Scott administration, with its 30,000-foot statistic-driven approach to policymaking, doesn’t speak to those at highest risk. As a result, we risk sentencing those people to a lifetime of vulnerability. We can only accommodate those who most need it if we broaden our approach beyond vaccination alone.
Unfortunately, the administration seems well on the way to learning the wrong lessons from the Omicron variant. They see the “success” of basically plowing through the spikes and danger points, regardless of how many people don’t survive the process. Stats Supremo Michael Pieciak noted that January’s death toll equaled December’s high point, and it’ll still be a few weeks before we see a marked reversal in Covid deaths.
Is that good enough for you? It is if your biggest concern is Getting On With Life and Especially Our Economy. It isn’t if you’re also concerned about protecting the most vulnerable — something Phil Scott has always listed as a foundational pillar of his governorship.