Tag Archives: Michael Pieciak

It Sure Looks Like the Administration Wasn’t Prepared for the Delta Variant

This week’s news has been very bad for the Scott administration’s reputation for sound management of the Covid pandemic. On Wednesday, Seven Days reported that the state’s contact tracing effort has failed to keep pace with the recent surge in cases. That same day, VTDigger reported that Vermont’s public schools are trying to do contact tracing on their own and are having trouble getting timely advice from the Health Department.

This appears to be a Delta variant phenomenon; the administration’s response was much more robust in earlier phases of the pandemic. Did they get overconfident in early summer, when Covid-19 seemed to be on the wane? Were they over-reliant on the protection offered by widespread vaccination? I’m guessing yes on both counts.

In 2020, Health Department staffers conducted much of the contact tracing, and pulled in other state workers and National Guard troops to assist. This spring the administration outsourced the work to an out-of-state contractor, which was caught unprepared for the arrival of the Delta variant. And the administration has been slow to respond. I have to think they badly underestimated the impact of the Delta surge.

Why do I think that? First, Governor Scott has been very slow to institute tougher measures. Second, his people were slow to realize that Delta would create a need for a vigorous contact tracing system. That became a critical failure as the schools began to reopen.

“Within two weeks, 67 schools should have full contact tracing,” Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said at this week’s Covid briefing. There are 250 public schools in Vermont. Smith is acknowledging that only one-fourth of them will have full contact tracing by late September. That’s appalling.

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A Disturbing Trend in State Covid Stats, and Other Notes on Today’s Presser

This here chart illustrates a troubling development in the last week-plus: Vermont’s initial daily Covid count has been consistently revised upward a day later. Some of the revisions are dramatic. And, as VTDigger reported, the trend continued big-time over the Labor Day weekend. The original case counts for Saturday, Sunday and Monday totaled 242 cases. The one-day-later revised counts totaled 438. Yep, they almost doubled from original report to later revision.

This is problematic in two ways. First, most people who follow this stuff check the daily number on the Covid Dashboard, and that’s all they do. They never spot the revisions. Second, the revisions are not easy to find. They are reflected in the Health Department’s Covid charts, but only if you know where to look. It took me a while, and I’m a frequent Dashboard visitor. It ain’t exactly transparency.

This issue rightfully came up at Gov. Phil Scott’s weekly briefing today. And the answers were, shall we say, less than informative.

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Phil Scott’s Biggest Gamble

In the face of rising Covid-19 numbers, Gov. Phil Scott has stood fast on his pandemic policy. He has offered recommendations instead of mandates, and refused to set new restrictions on, say, indoor dining or tourism. In doing so, he has cited evidence that the Delta variant declines several weeks after onset.

To be honest, I go back and forth on the direness of the current situation, as I read a reassuring story or an alarming statistic. But here’s one thing I do know: This is the biggest gamble Phil Scott has ever taken as governor. Bigger than the gun bills, bigger than vetoing three budgets in two years. His handling of the pandemic has made him politically untouchable. If the Delta variant doesn’t turn the corner by Labor Day or so, he risks losing everything he has gained in the last 18 months.

A couple of weeks ago, Finance Commissioner and Chief Covid Projector Michael Pieciak cited the track record of the Delta variant: An alarming increase followed by a decline five to seven weeks later. The governor is betting that Vermont will follow the same path.

We’re roughly at the five-week mark now. Schools are about to reopen with no mask mandate and no vaccines for kids under 12. We are about to see if our experience matches Scott’s optimism. If it doesn’t, then Scott will get the blame — just as he has gotten the lion’s share of the credit for managing the pandemic so far.

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There Are Two Ways This Can End, and They’re Both Terrible

Anne Galloway, the Captain Ahab of Vermont journalism, has returned to port with another big bloody chunk of the Great White Whale.

The whale is the EB-5 scandal, about which fundamental questions remain unanswered because a lot of information has yet to be made public. I don’t agree with how VTDigger is stonewalling its union, but this is an example of why we need Digger. Galloway is doing a tremendous public service by chasing a complicated story that no other media outlet has been willing to tackle.

Should I do a brief recap of the EB-5 thing? Is that possible? Well, here we go.

EB-5 is a program that offers green cards to foreign investors who put money into development projects in designated rural and/or poor areas. It was a small thing in Vermont until the great recession of 2008-9, when it suddenly took off. State oversight failed to keep up with its rapid growth. A lot of good projects got built, but Ariel Quiros allegedly committed large-scale fraud by taking money for projects he never built. He was assisted in these efforts by Vermont businessman Bill Stenger.

The state of Vermont, particularly the Shumlin administration, either failed to detect the fraud or tried to cover it up. Which one? Probably both, but we don’t know because a lot of key documents are still, several years later, being kept under wraps.

VTDigger has been diligently pursuing those documents, and keeps winning partial victories. Which then gives them reams upon reams of documents to go through.

On Wednesday, Digger posted another installment in its series. This time, it reports that state officials knew there was fraudulent activity two years before the the scandal was revealed by federal regulators in 2016.

Yikes.

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A case study in the pitfalls of free market health insurance

Seems like it was just the other night I was writing about a certain candidate who believes the cure for the health care crisis is to give insurance companies free rein. A Thousand Flowers Will Bloom, goes the fantasy. Problem is, when you let your garden grow, you get a thousand flowers and a million weeds.

A classic example of this was (briefly) in the news earlier this month, when the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation imposed its largest-ever fine against an insurance company.

The offender, Companion Life Insurance of South Carolina, was fined for selling cartoonishly bad health care policies to Vermont college students between 2014 and 2016 without ever seeking the requisite DFR approval. If the policies had been submitted to the state, they would have been found in violation of both state and federal law.

The policies did not cover most of the medical conditions that commonly befall college students: athletic injuries, mental health coverage, substance use treatment, immunizations, preventative screenings (including for STDs) and contraceptive management.

This is the kind of thing the Meg Hansens of the world see as the bright shiny free-market future of health care. Fortunately for us, we do regulate insurance.

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