Tag Archives: Mike Smith

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.

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Scott to Critics: Please Shut Up

For Gov. Phil Scott, that “freedom of the press” stuff has become awfully inconvenient. On multiple occasions during this week’s Covid briefing, he basically told critics and reporters they should keep quiet for the good of the state.

“Having the continued debate about whether [masks] should be mandated… is just making the problem worse from my standpoint,” Scott said. “It’s dividing people even further, it’s hardening people further.”

So by Scott’s reckoning, anyone who publicly disagrees with him is doing harm to the state. And if you think I’m being unfair, let’s scroll down to where VTDigger’s Erin Petenko asked Scott about an essay by former Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen advocating for an indoor mask mandate.

We judt have a difference of opinion on that. What we do share in a common goal, I think Dr. Chen would probably agree, is that we want people to wear masks when they’re indoors. So let’s focus on the area where we agree, and not keep focusing on the controversial mask mandate.

Which is a gross misrepresentation of Dr. Chen’s position. But we’ll leave that aside and get to the governor’s kicker.

Erin, you could be very helpful in this regard.

Oh, so now it’s the press’s duty to support administration policy? Is that what you’re saying? Really?

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I’d Hate to Call It Lying, but…

At his Tuesday Covid briefing, Gov. Phil Scott was either lying or uninformed when he answered a question about the hotel/motel emergency housing program. Neither is a particularly good look.

Scott was asked about a claim by homeless advocates that the state has more money for emergency housing but isn’t using it. Meanwhile, they say, some people are being turned away. “I just don’t believe that that’s the case,” Scott replied. “We do have a program. We are taking care of those in need… We are protecting those who need our help.”

Sounds good. But a few moments later, Human Services Secretary Mike Smith undercut those bland assurances. Smith was asked about expanded access to emergency housing when the weather gets cold.

“it’s gonna be limited because we still are housing 1500 people,” Smith replied. “The Issue is the availability of hotel and motel rooms as we move forward. We are scouring the state right now for buildings we could use as temporary shelter sites for those individuals.”

And then the kicker:

We’re turning away some people, unfortunately, that do qualify under existing program because we don’t have the hotel and motel space that we would like.

Well now. Scott says we’re helping all those in need. Smith says we’re already turning people away, and that could get worse when cold weather increases demand.

Which is it, boys?

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The Definition of Insanity

… is, as Albert Einstein didn’t actually say*, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

*Pick a famous “quote,” chances are it’s been misattributed. Einstein is a popular choice.

Not sure why that came to mind after viewing this week’s gubernatorial Covid presser, but there you go.

It was a remarkably dissociative experience. Gov. Phil Scott and his officials laid out an array of bad news, but he insisted that there’s no need for a change in policy.

Although in fact, he did make at least one substantial shift from previous guidance. He just didn’t care to admit it.

“Wear a mask indoors in public places,” Scott said. Previously, as you may recall, his advice was that vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks unless they felt more comfortable doing so.

That’s a pretty big change, right?

And if you look back at what the administration was saying in August and September, you’ll see that just about all of it is now inoperative.

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Embarrassment Plus Compassion Equals Policy Shift

We’ll take a couple thousand of these, thanks

“It hasn’t changed my thinking,” said Gov. Phil Scott at his Tuesday briefing. The subject was the state’s emergency housing program. Immediately after he said that, he went on to make it pretty dang clear that his thinking has changed and is continuing to change.

For that, a lot of credit goes to the intrepid band of advocates (including Tweeters-In-Chief Josh Lisenby and Brenda Siegel) camped out on the portico of the Statehouse. The needle has definitely moved since their protest began almost three weeks ago. The conversation has shifted from “We need to end the program soon” to “We’ll keep it running a while longer” to “We want to avoid throwing anyone out on the street, if only because the optics would be bad.”

(That last bit is the quiet part out loud.)

This isn’t enough for the advocates, who continue their stakeout. But it’s substantial movement nonetheless.

At this point, Scott doesn’t really have a position. Until now, he was dead set on ending the program at a date certain. The date kept shifting backwards, but there was always an end in sight. Now, it’s not clear that there is. The governor sure avoided any talk of a deadline at the Tuesday presser.

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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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The Assassination of OneCare Vermont by the Coward Douglas Hoffer

Not exactly convincing, I have to admit

The townsfolk are all horns and rattles, I never seen such a fuss. Must be that cold-blooded sidewinder Doug Hoffer’s back in town and up to no good.

This time, the ol’ gunslinger has taken aim at OneCare Vermont. Hoffer’released an audit on Monday finding that OneCare, which was supposed to glean savings from the healthcare system, has cost millions more than it’s saved.

The normal official response to a Hoffer audit is along the lines of “Well, he found some interesting information, but nothing we didn’t already know and weren’t already doing something about.” But the reaction to this audit is more direct, if not downright hostile. Mind you, they didn’t contest Hoffer’s findings, not at all. But they didn’t like his conclusions, not one little bit.

One might even detect a faint whiff of panic. Considering that free-lance health care expert Hamilton Davis just called OneCare “a dumpster fire,” I can see why Our Leaders would be unreceptive to a critical audit right now.

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Through a Monitor, Darkly

More happy tidings concerning the much-ballyhooed “culture change” in the Vermont Department of Corrections in a VTDigger story about how state prisons are being reopened to visitors. The answer is slowly and incompletely, with strings attached. Unlike, say, the Scott administration’s policy toward the reopening of Vermont otherwise, which is to immediately remove all restraints.

The story also contains other tidbits that underscore the administration’s broader attitude toward inmates: that they don’t really deserve to be treated with dignity. There’s an undercurrent of “Inmates did something wrong and must be punished.” You see this over and over again in administration policy.

The DOC refused to prioritize inmates for vaccination, despite multiple outbreaks of Covid-19 inside our prisons. (Human Services Secretary made an absolute hash out of trying to explain that policy.) It put Covid-positive inmates into solitary confinement, which meant cruelly restrictive conditions normally reserved for the worst miscreants.

Now, the DOC is taking a go-slow approach to allowing visitors. “We want to make sure everybody is safe when we do this,” said Al Cormier, DOC director of operations. Gee, too bad that wasn’t the policy when inmates were made to wait their turn for vaccination even though they were demonstrably at high risk, and they could have been easily served because they’re all gathered in a handful of locations.

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Admin Official Injures Self Attempting Verbal Arabesque

You get the feeling that Human Services Secretary Mike Smith was all prepared for a question about the Scott administration’s refusal to prioritize prison inmates for Covid-19 vaccinations. Because, as it turns out, he was kind of over-prepared.

At the administration’s Friday press conference, reporters were far more occupied with other issues. There were questions about teachers and child care workers and various classes of potentially high-risk cohorts, but the first mention of inmates didn’t come until the one hour, 37 minute mark.

At that point, Joe Gresser of the Barton Chronicle asked whether long-term care facilities near the Northern State Correctional Facility should change their visitation rules due to the Covid outbreak at the prison. Implying, I guess, that the prison outbreak could mean more danger in the surrounding community.

At which point Smith spent three minutes and 21 seconds on a soliloquy that didn’t actually answer Gresser’s question. The time was consumed in a word-salady defense of the state’s inmate vaccination policy. Which makes me think Smith was expecting a barrage of questions on the issue.

For those just joining us, the state’s policy is to consider inmates exactly as other Vermonters are considered. They get vaccinated when their age group or risk group gets vaccinated. No special treatment. Despite the fact that, according to defense attorney and inmate advocate Kelly Green, 44% of NSCF inmates have tested positive. Forty-four percent. If that’s not a high-risk cohort, I don’t know what is.

After the jump, I’m going to provide a transcript (my own) of Smith’s entire disquisition and then make some comments.

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The Corrections Culture

Corrections Commissioner James Baker continues to make the right noises. On Friday, after news that more than two-thirds of Vermont inmates at a Mississippi for-profit prison had tested positive for coronavirus, Baker talked of accountability and responsibility and the need for a culture change inside his department.

Now, if only he can make it happen. The DOC is a hidebound place, full of long-tenured employees whose kneejerk reaction is to defend the status quo.

In one of his first actions, Baker sent two DOC administrators to Mississippi to get a first-person look at things. He said he was “reassured” upon hearing their reports.

Not so fast, my friend. One of the two who made the trip was DOC facilities operations manager Bob Arnell. That’s the Bob Arnell who was once the superintendent of the state’s extremely troubled women’s prison.

I’m sure ol’ Bob knows all about problematic institutional culture. After all, he became superintendent after the inglorious departure of his predecessor, David Turner, who requested reassignment in 2012 “days after a report emerged that condemned the conditions” at the prison. (Turner, “a veteran employee” of the DOC, was shuffled elsewhere in the department.)

And we all know that, ever since, the women’s prison has been the very model of excellence. Oh wait.

In recent years, …guards have sexually assaulted inmates, harassed female employees, and pursued sexual relationships with women who have left the prison but remain on furlough, probation or parole — and, therefore, under DOC supervision.

That’s from a December 2019 story by Paul Heintz of Seven Days, reporting on widespread allegations of sexual misconduct and drug use in the prison — and the almost complete lack of DOC response to all of it. Except to threaten retaliation against inmates who had the guts to complain.

I don’t know how long Arnell was in place at the facility, but let’s conclude he didn’t have any perceptible impact on the “culture.” But I’m sure if he says everything is hunky-dory in Mississippi, we can take his word for it.

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