Recent editorials of regional and national interest from New England’s newspapers:
Duby’s dubious COVID communications contract
Gov. Ned Lamont has been largely judicious in the use of the emergency powers granted him to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, which makes the administration’s decision to use those powers to steer a contract to a public-relations firm with strong Democratic Party connections all the more puzzling and troubling.
In late December, with many folks distracted by the holidays, the administration announced it had entered into a three-month, $250,000 contract with McDowell Communications to handle communications about the pandemic and the vaccine rollout. The state is using federal COVID-relief funds to pay for the work.
Lamont used his emergency powers to waive the normal competitive bid process and award the contract to the company directed by Duby McDowell, well known in Democratic circles and a campaign contributor. She also co-hosts WFSB’s “Face the State” program.
It is all well and good to waive bid procedures to rush protective equipment to first responders and health personnel, or to quickly set up a testing site, but using emergency authority for a communications consulting deal — and a questionable one at that — looks like an abuse of that authority.
As noted by Jon Lender of the Hartford Courant, who did some great reporting on the questionable deal, about 40 employees in the executive branch are well paid to provide communications to the public.
Making things more interesting is that McDowell’s former partner at McDowell Jewett — Steve Jewett —“served as the (Lamont) campaign’s senior advisor and chief strategist,” according to a company posting issued in 2018 after Lamont’s victory.
And, as The Courant reported, Maura Fitzgerald, a senior vice president with McDowell, directed media operations for Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal during his 2010 campaign and then, after his victory, got a job as a deputy district director. In 2016, Fitzgerald took the job of director of communications for the state Department of Public Health, leaving in 2019 to join the public relations group.
Acting state health Commissioner Deidre Gifford points to Fitzgerald’s experience in health communications as why McDowell Communications is a good fit. The growing demand to get information to the public drove the decision to hire an outside firm, she said.
Well, from this vantage point, it looks unnecessary and inappropriate. After this contract runs out, if at all possible return the responsibility to state workers. If private help is absolutely needed, put it out to bid.
Vaccine rollout, like so much with COVID, is too slow to be effective
Bangor Daily News
It is, of course, terrific news that the U.S. and other countries have so quickly developed vaccines against the coronavirus. Those vaccines are only helpful if people can get them.
The distribution of the vaccines across the U.S. has so far been much too slow and uncoordinated, much like the testing and public health messaging — wear a mask! — that were needed earlier this year to keep coronavirus cases low. As President Donald Trump continued to downplay the dangers of COVID-19 — even after he was infected himself — new cases of the virus have steadily risen. In the U.S., more than 21 million people have been infected and more than 358,000 have died, by far the highest numbers reported in the world.
As with coronavirus testing, the administration has left much of the work up to each state. This led to a mishmash of protocols and availability of tests and the laboratories needed to process them. As a result, how quickly those who fear they might have the illnesses can be tested and get their results depend, in part, on where they live.
Much the same is true of vaccinations. The administration had a goal of vaccinating 20 million Americans by the end of 2020. But the president has been much more focused on fallacious claims of voter fraud after losing the Nov. 3 election than on working to slow the deadly spread of coronavirus.
By year’s end, only 3 million doses of vaccine had been administered. Two doses of the vaccine are needed for full inoculation against COVID-19.
That number has since risen to 5 million doses, but still woefully short of the goal, as only 1.5 percent of the U.S. population has been vaccinated.
Maine has the fourth highest vaccination rate in the country with nearly 2.6 percent of the state’s population vaccinated, according to tracking by Bloomberg based on U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. The state has already used half of the vaccines it has received, the sixth highest utilization in the country.
However, the state has consistently received fewer doses of vaccines than it has requested, according to Dr. Nirav Shah, the head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Shah has said he does not know why states are getting less than requested.
The state is making its way through a first eligible group, which has included hospital health care workers and long-term care facility residents since December and expanded to outpatient clinics and independent practitioners this week.
The Maine CDC has a goal of vaccinating the next group — Mainers over the age of 75 and frontline essential workers — by February. To make a large dent in that group, Maine would need to receive and administer 50,000 doses a week, far more than the state is currently receiving. Early this week, the state had received 66,250 doses of vaccine in total.
The federal and state officials have traded accusations over who is to blame for the vaccination delays. Federal officials now say distribution of vaccines will speed up.
“We agree that that number is lower than what we hoped for,” Moncef Slaoui, scientific adviser of Operation Warp Speed, the federal effort to develop a vaccine, told The New York Times at the end of December. “We know that it should be better, and we’re working hard to make it better.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Tuesday that the U.S. would soon be on track to give 1 million vaccinations a day. “Any time you start a big program, there’s always glitches. I think the glitches have been worked out,” the nation’s top infectious disease expert told The Associated Press.
He said that incoming President Joe Biden’s goal of vaccinating 100 million Americans during his first 100 days in office “a very realistic, important, achievable goal.”
Fauci cited the example of New York City vaccinating more than 6 million people against a smallpox outbreak in less than a month in 1947. One of those vaccinated was Fauci, who was then 6 years old.
If one city could vaccinate 6 million people that quickly — without the modern technology in use today — surely the U.S. can do a much better job of getting the coronavirus vaccine into the arms of Americans waiting for an inoculation against the rampant illness.
An administration with a coordinated plan to combat — and a commitment to help Americans get through — the coronavirus crisis should help.
MBTA service cuts are bad public policy
The MBTA is slated to receive somewhere between $250 million and $300 million from the latest round of federal stimulus funding. Yet, even with plenty of money pouring in, state transportation officials are going forward with some so-called sticky service cuts — the kind that cause pain for riders and are difficult to reverse.
Under a plan ironically named “Forging Ahead,” the T will suspend 20 bus routes and reduce the frequency of others; reduce frequency by 20 percent on the Green, Orange, and Red lines, and by up to 5 percent on the Blue Line; eliminate weekend service on many commuter rail lines and run fewer weekday trips; close five commuter rail stations; and end the Charlestown-to-downtown ferry service.
Most of these service cuts will take place between January and March. While scaled back from an initial proposal, they still don’t add up. Not if you consider public transit a public good that should serve everyone in the public. Not if you think about transportation as a matter of equity, environmental stewardship, and social justice — not a privilege.
It’s true that T ridership has plummeted because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the agency expects to run a deficit approaching $600 million in the fiscal year that begins in July. But, thanks to a healthy flow of federal money into the state, there’s no deficit now, and there won’t be one in the near future. In fact, state transportation officials admit they may even have enough money to keep most services running. Instead, they are concerned about running what Governor Charlie Baker has referred to as “empty trains and buses,” which he called a “bad idea” and “bad public policy.”
However, even if you are the last person on that bus, it isn’t empty, is it? And if you’re a worker who has to get to your job, pandemic or no pandemic, why must you risk unsafe, crowded conditions because of service cuts, while others can work safely at home? The community that’s still riding those buses and subways because they have no choice is rightly asking: Why are our lives worth less than the lives of others? The Baker administration has not answered that question.
Meanwhile, the T can’t even say how much money the planned service cuts will save. The original proposed package of cuts totaled about $95 million. According to T spokesman Joe Pesaturo, the revised service-cuts package approved by the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board adds up to a smaller number that budget experts still can’t estimate. “The budget team doesn’t have an exact number because of the amount of implementation work required — depending on timelines and other choices, it is difficult to project a precise number at this time,” Pesaturo said via e-mail.
According to the T’s “Forging Ahead” proposal, “Savings from service cuts will be used to increase service frequency later, when warranted by ridership and revenue and, consistent with the timing of post-vaccine economic reopening, the return of ridership and availability of revenue to pay for additional service.” The problem, said Chris Dempsey, director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a coalition of public transit advocates, is that “sticky” service cuts cannot be easily reversed without incurring additional costs. This is particularly true, said Dempsey, if you are laying off trained workers, which seems necessary to achieve any sort of substantial cost savings.
Extracting concessions from the Boston Carmen’s Union, Local 589, which represents 6,000 T bus drivers and other workers, by threatening layoffs associated with these cuts, may be the Baker administration’s real goal. (The T separately announced that some executives and workers would have to take unpaid furlough days, saving about $2.5 million.) The “Forging Ahead” proposal contains this language: “While layoffs remain on the table, the MBTA is actively working with our major unions to assess all available options for implementing service changes and achieving budget savings while positioning the MBTA to bring back service with its current trained and experienced workforce.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Baker used a crisis to gain control over the T. He did it after record snowfall shut down T service in 2015 — and, to his credit, righted the agency’s fiscal ship before the outbreak erupted. But using the threat of service cuts as a bargaining chip in the midst of a pandemic is really bad public policy — and carrying out those cuts when there’s no legitimate financial reason to do it is even worse.
Rutland Herald/Times Argus
There have been incidents appearing in articles and police logs in recent weeks that would suggest that we’re not handling our stress very well. In fact, indications are that we need to take a chill pill.
Recently, Alcohol.org, a leading provider of addiction treatment resources, conducted a survey of about 3,000 Americans to determine levels of anger across nationwide in 2020. According to the survey, those who are angriest in the country live in Delaware, where residents admit to getting angry a significant 12 times a week, or almost twice a day. The least angry citizens have been those living in Hawaii, with people only getting riled up twice a week, the survey found.
According to a release on the survey, Vermonters polled admitted to getting angry four times per week. The national average was six times a week.
Why? The survey indicates that spending more time at home due to social distancing can leave some people short-fused and particularly irritable in certain situations. For many Americans, the coronavirus pandemic brought with it a wave of negative emotions, such as fear, stress, anger and frustration at these unprecedented circumstances.
But anything could be a trigger: a slow WiFi connection, excess workload or any number of minor annoyances can set off anger. Throw national politics and the divisiveness pervasive in the country right now and you have plenty of fuel for our collective fire.
According to Kaiser Health News, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly one in five of U.S. adults (47 million) reported having a mental illness in the past year. Over 11 million had a serious mental illness, which frequently results in functional impairment and limits life activities, and can lead to anger issues. In 2017-2018, more than 17 million adults and an additional 3 million adolescents had a major depressive episode in the past year.
Deaths due to drug overdose have increased more than threefold over the past 19 years (from 6.1 deaths per 100,000 people in 1999 to 20.7 deaths per 100,000 people in 2019). Nearly 50,000 Americans died by suicide last year, and nearly 11 million adults (4.3%) reported having serious thoughts of suicide in the past year.
“During this unprecedented time of uncertainty and fear, it is likely that mental health issues and substance use disorders among people with these conditions will be exacerbated,” Kaiser noted.
For Alcohol.org, the implication is huge: A rise in anger and anxiety levels has affected the majority of us, with 88% admitting to feeling angrier since the start of the pandemic. And some of those angry people (68%) have turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism. Unfortunately, this can exacerbate the issue; 65% of people who did this admitted it had the opposite effect and only made things worse, the survey notes.
Alcohol.org explains that, while anger in itself can be a healthy emotion, using alcohol, or any other substance, to try and soothe it can actually disrupt and deepen the angry feelings, due to the effect of the chemicals on our brains.
And in a lot of the cases reported on these pages, there were substance abuse, as well as anger management issues — some of them among repeat or habitual offenders.
As Jill Ebstein, the editor of the “At My Pace” series of books, wrote this week, “It is easy to overstate the obvious. Our world has endured mental and physical anguish that takes us back to some of our darkest days, including wars, terrorism, hazards of nature, and personal failure. COVID feels like a villainous twist on a theme, maybe setting a new standard for fear, isolation, and a pervasive sense of loss. We wonder whether there is a future that we want to be part of.”
Ebstein sees moments of optimism, but not without some self-help. Here is her three-part approach to chilling out:
— Quell growing pessimism. The Pew Research Center reports worldwide pessimism is at a high. Four areas were probed — inequality, politics, employment and education — all returning pessimistic outlooks. For example, 65% of respondents generally felt pessimistic about reducing the gap between the rich and poor. Be positive.
— Empower ourselves through small acts of kindness. We know it is more fun to give than be given to, but both are good.
— Visualize positive outcomes. We need to nurture our kernels of hope, and visualization helps. Seeing possibilities motivates.
Easy, right? Yes. Chill out, and give it a try. You’ll feel better.