Category Archives: Public health

The True Heatmap

Well, looky here. One week after I noted that the state of Vermont’s travel map was “deeply misleading” (text) or “a lie” (headline), the state has issued a new version, reproduced above. And it clearly shows that we’re just as besieged by the pandemic as any of our neighbors.

I’ll take one sentence to crow about feeling vindicated. And then I’ll say that on balance, I’d rather be wrong in this case. Especially since I live in Washington County, which is Ground Zero of our current outbreak. (Thanks, recreational hockey league!)

For those just joining us, the state’s official travel map had made it seem like Vermont was somehow immune from the coronavirus. Other states were assigned green, yellow and red, while Vermont was illustrated in three shades of blue — for the same disease rates. Light blue was the same as green, and dark blue was the same as red. If considered strictly as a “travel map,” one could argue that the coloring was appropriate. But it also sent a signal that Vermont was doing just fine, thank you, and if that led anyone to let down their guard, it helped contribute to the upward spiral in our Covid numbers.

So far, Gov. Phil Scott has received a lot of credit for his coronavirus response. It’s beginning to look like he’s taken a few too many chances as we enter a new and much more severe phase of the pandemic. Throughout, he has listened to his experts and made decisions based partly on their input and party with an eye on the economy — even as he has consistently claimed to be placing science above all.

Did he give his renowned spigot a few too many turns? It’s beginning to look like it. We can’t lay it all at his feet, but he did play a role in the growth of a false sense of confidence among Vermonters. This new map, with its unavoidable and unbroken sea of red, should serve as a wake-up call for himself and his officials and for all of us.

This Map Is A Lie

I’ve been following the state of Vermont’s travel maps for months now, and watching the grim progression of the “red zone” closer and closer to our borders. Through it all, I’ve gotten a bit of visual comfort from Vermont’s apparent exemption from the great red tide.

But, as others have noted this week, that comfort was entirely without foundation. The blue lagoon shouldn’t be blue at all; it should be a mix of red, yellow and green. You don’t get that if you just glance at the map. But if you check the fine print, you see that the three shades of blue correspond to red, yellow and green. By the standards of this map, my county (Washington) is in the red zone, the no-travel zone.

The shades of blue for Vermont are a deliberate choice by the creator of the map — the Department of Financial Regulation. And it’s deeply misleading. It feeds into our innate sense that Vermont is different, better, and at least somewhat immune from the problems that beset all the other states. Like we have an invisible, ineffable moat around our borders.

In truth, if the same color scheme was used throughout, Vermont’s counties would be roughly equally red, yellow and green. And in fact, the situation has already worsened; we learned at the Scott administration’s Friday Covid briefing that roughly one-half of Vermont counties would be colored red if the out-of-state standards were applied.

If I were to ask why Vermont’s counties were colored in blue, the response would probably be, “Well, this is a travel map, and we want to showcase the areas where it’s safe to travel from. Vermont isn’t part of that equation.”

Okay, well, maybe. But at the very least, they should use a different set of much flashier colors instead of three subtly differing shades of the same hue. Maybe orange, purple and blue?

This is the state’s travel map. But it’s also the state’s primary (perhaps only) visual representation of the spread of the coronavirus. The map should be recrafted to accurately impart that message as well.

Finally, those stupid Travel Maps are good for something

Useless Travel Map, June 30 edition

I have previously railed against the state’s Travel Map, which is supposed to let out-of-state visitors know whether they can enter Vermont without self-quarantining. Roll the tape, please.

C’mon, now. Do you really expect out-of-staters to look up and obey this map? Which, by the way, changes weekly — so don’t pre-plan a visit for two or three weeks from now, because your county might turn yellow or red.

That was just one of multiple objections to the map. But finally, I’ve found a way in which it’s legitimately useful: it quantifies our collective feeling of dread.

Looking at multiple maps in sequence shows how the virus is spreading, and illustrates exactly why Gov. Phil Scott finally imposed a mask mandate. The map above was released on June 30; here’s the July 10 version.

As a reminder, each area is a county. “Green” counties have low Covid rates, so their residents can travel to Vermont without restriction. But on July 11, there was already a lot more yellow and red, and a lot less green, than on June 30.

Now here’s the latest version, released on July 31.

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Don’t buy any green bananas

Is anyone feeling confident right now?

You shouldn’t.

Vermont has been spared the worst of the pandemic so far. But even so, we’re dealing with constant uncertainty — and a financial calamity that’s just beginning to be felt.

And every day we’re one step closer to the fall, when coronavirus is likely to hit even harder.

Where do I even begin? Education seems the best place. Educators at all levels, not to mention parents, are furiously trying to develop plans that are subject to change on a moment’s notice. This week, Gov. Phil Scott identified September 8 as the first day of school — but that could mean in-person, online, or most likely a mix of the two. Scott and Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine sought to reassure the public that, as Levine put it, “In Vermont, this is the right time to open schools.”

Of course, in the same press conference, Education Secretary Dan French conceded that “This is uncharted territory that acknowledges a considerable amount of uncertainty and anxiety.”

This came a few days after Brigid Nease, superintendent of the Harwood Union Unified School District, posted a letter to her community outlining all the uncertainties and obstacles facing her staff. It’s worth reading, but what struck me was the complete lack of confidence that, even if it was safe to open schools, there may not be enough staff.

Letters of resignation, requests for leaves of absence, Family Medical Leave (FMLA), Emergency Family Medical Leave (EFML), Emergency Paid Sick Leave (EPSL), Exemption status, and leave under the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA) (Which provides up to 12 weeks of leave for employees unable to work because their child’s school is closed) are coming in.

The truth is most school employees are scared to death they will get sick (or worse), bring the virus home to loved ones, have a student in their care become ill, or experience the death of a coworker.

Meanwhile, on the higher education front, colleges and universities are constantly fiddling with their reopening plans — all of which seem to be based on crossed fingers and an unfounded faith in the self-restraint of college students.

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The Anti-Maskers Emerge

Spotted on a Montpelier bulletin board

It was inevitable, but it’s still disappointing.

“Citizen scientists.” Really.

Impartial seekers of the truth, putting out a one-sided “survey” in a transparent effort to gin up some “evidence” to support their preconceived notion. This is, must I say it, a disgrace.

And to judge from the rhetoric and approach, I’ll bet you a shiny new quarter that the Venn Diagram of “Mask Survey” and “Anti-Vaxxers” is a single circle.

But I have to credit the bravery of the “citizen scientists” behind this flyer. They’re right up front owning their beliefs and accepting the conseq— oh wait, sorry. They actually provide no identifying information or means of two-way contact; only a gmail address and, on its website, a P.O. box in Marshfield.

Nowhere on flyer or website do they cite any of the “research” that “shows there are likely to be disadvantages” to wearing masks. I like the qualifiers: “likely” meaning “fuzzy and unproven,” “disadvantages” in place of “hazards” or “dangers.” In plain English, “undisclosed research that shows a possibility of inconveniences in wearing masks.”

Of course there are “disadvantages.” Masks are a little annoying, they make my glasses fog up, people can’t see your facial expressions, it is a little harder to communicate. The rest of it is bullshit of a particular type — the conspiracy-minded worried-well contingent that makes up most of the anti-vaxxer movement.

And now they’re coming after masks.

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Dancing With the Devil (Updated)

This Just In: Phil Scott is playing a dangerous game.

The governor has been consistent in believing that, with proper encouragement and modeling, Vermonters will wear masks of their own accord. And he’s kinda-sorta been right, at least in terms of “no big outbreaks so far.”

But if he’s waiting for “lots more cases” before considering a mask mandate, then he will have waited too long. As the examples of Florida, Texas, Arizona, Arkansas, South Carolina and other states show, and as the science about coronavirus shows, “lots more cases” is the inevitable precursor of an out-of-control pandemic.

And by Vermont standards, the past month hasn’t been the best. According to the Health Department’s data, the month of May brought exactly 100 new cases, increasing our total from 885 to 985. Since June 1, we’ve added another 223.

Last week, Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine claimed that Vermont was flattening the curve. That was arguably true a month ago, but not now. And every time Scott gives the ol’ spicket another quarter-turn, we hope it’s not coronavirus that comes out.

In truth, he doesn’t have any good options. The initial shutdown was supposed to give America time to get its shit together on testing and contact tracing. Then, when we reopened the economy, we’d be able to keep a lid on the virus — just as most of Europe has done. But here, the Trump administration completely bungled things. As a result, the shutdown accomplished nothing except to cause tremendous disruption and untold financial pain.

At last Wednesday’s press briefing, Scott was asked if he expected Congress to extend the temporary $600 bump in unemployment benefits. He said he didn’t, and that was why he continued to gradually reopen the economy. If he can’t do that, then the pain will spread and intensify.

But every gradual bit of reopening heightens the risks.

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When is a law not a law?

A philosophical question triggered by a specific actuality: a new law intended to inform the public about toxic algae blooms is pretty much a sham.

VPR’s Taylor Dobbs explains how it’s supposed to work:

The new law is know as Act 86, and it requires the Vermont Department of Health to start public outreach within one hour of finding out about a bloom of blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria.

Great idea, right?

Here’s the problem: there’s no mechanism to conduct real-time tracking of algae blooms. The Legislature passed a shiny new PR-friendly law — “Look, we’re doing something to ensure your safety!” — but did nothing about turning its good intention into reality. The monitoring effort is entirely in the hands of volunteers, and there’s a huge amount of ground to cover.

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Oh, and about that other ubiquitous crime wave…

One of the most eye-opening resuls from last month’s VPR Poll concerned substance abuse. When respondents were asked to name “the most important problem facing Vermont,” 17 percent named “drugs.” The only other issue scoring higher than six percent was “economy/jobs/cost of living” at 28 percent. And when asked specifically if opiate addiction is a major problem, a massive 89 percent agreed.

Even more striking were the figures for personal connections to opioid abuse. 53 percent have been affected by opiate addiction or know someone who has. And 94 percent “personally know” someone who has struggled with addiction.

Practically the entire state.

If we needed convincing that opiate addiction is a serious problem, we shouldn’t anymore.

But let’s take another pervasive issue of a similar scope. An issue that’s usually lost in the white noise, that’s never been the subject of a State of the State address.

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Geoffrey Norman is a bitter, fact-challenged man

See if you recognize this place.

 

It’s drug-infested and scandal-plagued; its only growth sector is “methadone clinics.” Government is bloated and ineffective; politicians offer tired bromides or worse. Its politics march to an “angry populist beat” but the electorate is “too old, too tired, and too disillusioned” to turn their anger into action. “Soaring” taxes bludgeon inhabitants into sullen beggary, stripped of the will to resist. Many believe that the place’s “moment has passed.” For-sale signs litter the neighborhoods, as multitudes seek desperately to escape.

In case you don’t recognize this hopeless wasteland or the aimlessly trudging zombie-eyed inhabitants wandering the land, yes, it’s Vermont, and those zombies are you and me.

At least it’s the Vermont that haunts the fever dreams of Geoffrey Norman, best known in Internet circles as the former operator of the late, great free-market blog, Vermont Tiger.

Well, Norman is still around, and is respected enough in conservative circles that he managed to sell an essay to the Wall Street Journal. It’s gloriously entitled “In Declining Vermont, the Mood Is More Resigned Than Angry.”

And if you want to know why some see Vermont as a bad place to relocate or do business, maybe it’s because the readers of the Wall Street Journal are being fed this kind of crapola.

I mean, thanks, Geoffrey, for doing your utmost to defame your home state.

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In which I join the ranks of the Vermont Illuminati

Yeah, somebody forgot to invite me to the secret ceremony — or maybe The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy intercepted my invitation, hmmm? — but apparently I have joined the ranks of the secret elect. Yes, I’m in the Firmament of Evil alongside Peter “Capo di tutti capo” Shumlin, Mary “Whirling Blades” Powell, Paul “Carbon Tax” Burns, Shap “The Fixer” Smith, Crea “Moneybags” Linthilac, and whoever else.

I learned of my elevation in a curious way: via Twitter, from one of our staunchest conservatives.

Oooooh, “Orwellian”. Me likey!

Some explanation is needed, I’m sure, for the casual reader.

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