These things used to be weekly updates on the Covid-19 pandemic but, as of today, that’s no longer the case.
For the second week in a row, Gov. Phil Scott opened the event by declaring he had nothing to say about the pandemic. Instead, he used his platform to tout an administration policy priority. And the first administration official who followed Scott the lectern wasn’t Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine or Virus Vaticinator Michael Pieciak or Education Secretary Dan French.
No, it was the person pictured above: Public Service Commissioner June Tierney.
Needless to say, she didn’t talk about Covid. She talked about Scott’s plan to enhance mobile phone service by spending $51 million on new cell towers.
Right off the bat, we get two big tells that the state of the pandemic is no longer the chief subject.
Then came Strike Three. WCAX’s Calvin Cutler wanted to ask about the medical monitoring bill making its way through the Legislature, so he opened by noting that his question was “off topic.”
Scott’s response? “It’s not off topic for our weekly press briefings.”
That’s a new, and I’d say deliberate, change on the governor’s part.
So, per Scott himself, we no longer have weekly Covid briefings. We have weekly administration Happy Hours broadcast live across the state. In an election year, it begins to look less like public information and more like free publicity.
Of course, there was a lot of Covid talk throughout. But it’s gotten pushed out of the spotlight. Tierney was followed by acting Human Services Secretary Jenney Samuelson, who talked about mental health services.
And how improved cell coverage would provide greater access and equity.
Pieciak took the mic 20 minutes in and delivered his usual pandemic forecast, which was almost entirely good news. It looks like the Omicron variant has done its worst; Pieciak expects that our case loads will return to pre-Omicron levels by the end of February.
I guess that’s good news but, as I noted last week, it would only return to Delta variant levels. Remember that? It wasn’t a good time. Pieciak put it at 200 new cases per day, which used to be shockingly high. It’s lost its power to shock, thanks to Omicron case counts that were ten times as high. Pieciak also hinted at the uncertainty of the post-Omicron phase when he referred to “whatever the pandemic might throw at us next.” It was a sobering note in a medley of optimism.
The Q&A period was a mixed bag. Quite a few Covid questions, but a lot about unrelated policy issues. Which is to be expected, since Scott himself has removed “Covid” from the label.
There were, as usual, some curious gaps in the pandemic questions. Nothing about long Covid, in a week where I’ve seen new studies showing alarmingly high levels of brain and heart abnormalities in people who have recovered from their initial illness. Nothing about whether preparations are in place for the Deltas and Omicrons in our future. That includes readiness to change policy when needed, improving air circulation systems in schools and other public buildings, and some sort of ongoing monitoring system such as a broader application of wastewater testing.
These events are rapidly becoming the live-broadcast equivalent of the weekly gubernatorial press conference. Those were never televised live. They got sound bites in newscasts and nothing more. I think broadcast outlets have to start rethinking their commitment to live coverage. If the governor doesn’t think these events are about the pandemic anymore, our media should treat them as such. Especially in an election year.
It was necessary for Scott to have frequent access to a statewide platform when the pandemic was our top concern. It’s inappropriate for him to monopolize the platform when it’s not.