As the pandemic unravels, the Scott administration lashes out at a critic of COVID policies

  • Anne Sosin, policy fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College, at her home in Thetford, Vt., on Thursday, April 8, 2021. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell) GLENN RUSSELL

Published: 12/10/2021 4:14:51 PM
Modified: 12/10/2021 4:14:25 PM

A little after 10 p.m. Tuesday — a day on which Vermont had, yet again, broken a record for COVID-19 hospitalizations — Jason Gibbs, the governor’s chief of staff, decided to say his piece.

Anne Sosin, a policy fellow and public health expert at Dartmouth College who has frequently criticized the administration, had once again taken to Twitter, this time to point to evidence from Nevada, a state she believes shows proof of concept for the benefits of a universal, indoor mask mandate.

Gibbs responded with figures showing a higher rate of hospitalization in the ICU for COVID-19 in Nevada than in Vermont. (These figures also showed hospitalizations steadily declining in the Silver State, even as they spike at here.) But not content to debate the numbers, he injected some personal jabs.

“Here’s apples-to-apples from neutral folks (read: not desperate to prove a false narrative),” he wrote.

The exchange would continue well into the next day, with Gibbs sarcastically replying to Sosin’s defenders — including top researchers from Yale, Boston University and Duke. Sosin, who lives in Thetford, eventually would block Gibbs and walk away from the computer. She said in an interview later that she was “happy to debate policies and the evidence and data that underlie them,” but not to “engage in personal attacks or trolling.”

“I have always thought, you know, ‘We do our work, then we engage around it,’ but he’s — he’s out for blood,” Sosin said.

The back-and-forth, incidentally, took place on the eve of Gov. Phil Scott delivering a national speech — at the invitation of President Joe Biden — about civility and compromise.

“Healthy democracies,” the governor said during the virtual Summit for Democracy, require “healthy relationships” between government and the people, which include “a constant commitment to listening, learning and always working to do better.”

“It takes humility to realize that no single party or person has all the best ideas,” Scott said.

Just the day before on Twitter, Gregg Gonsalves, a Yale epidemiologist and public health expert who had jumped into the fray, pleaded with Gibbs to consider listening to dissenting voices rather than “bashing academics.”

“You need to bring in the experts, not do political damage control right now. There is a surge happening in Vermont,” Gonsalves wrote. “Shooting the messenger isn’t sound public policy it’s abdication of public responsibility and trust.”

“Yeah, alright buddy,” Gibbs would shoot back later in the exchange. “Asking for accurate math is ‘bashing’ and a diversion.”

Sosin is not alone in public health in calling on Scott to do more to stem the tide of record-breaking case counts and hospitalizations, including via a mask mandate. Two former health commissioners have done so as well. On Thursday, so did the Vermont Chapter of the American College of Physicians.

But Sosin often has been the first to express skepticism — especially publicly — about the administration’s approach. As administration officials were predicting earlier this summer that delta would quickly burn itself out, she was urging the media to look at less rosy modeling. When schools reopened with fewer than two pages of nonbinding guidance from the state, she predicted widespread dysfunction. Even last year, when the state was deciding whether to go forward with indoor interscholastic sports, she correctly foretold that a spate of outbreaks would follow.

Scott enjoys a reputation as an even-tempered moderate. But Gibbs, his most empowered aide, does not. Particularly in the early years of Scott’s administration, the former Jim Douglas staffer often publicly served as an attack dog against those — including nonpartisan civil servants — who questioned the governor’s proposals.

But while Scott has on occasion apologized for Gibbs’ more belligerent approach, he also has kept him around — and kept him close. And in an email, Jason Maulucci, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, this time offered no apologies for Gibbs’ behavior. In the administration’s view, he said, “the real issue” was that Sosin’s assertions were “misleading.”

“Gibbs presented data from a neutral data tool that a Nevadan is much more likely to be in the ICU for COVID than a Vermonter,” Maulucci wrote. “There is nothing uncivil about pointing out facts.”

And Scott, too, has grown testier as Vermont has steadily lost control of the pandemic in the delta variant’s wake. Critics and the media were making things worse and sowing division, he recently argued, by dwelling on mask mandate debates.

And top Democrats in the Legislature, who have urged him to implement a statewide indoor mask mandate, wanted to “cancel Christmas,” he flippantly told reporters in October.

Senate Pro Tem Becca Balint, D-Windham, said it was “not befitting” of the governor’s office for a top aide to launch personal attacks at a critic. But she added that she, too, had increasingly noticed the administration “show up with a very different tone” as the pandemic dragged on.

“Nobody wants to see the governor and his team fail on this front,” she said. “We’re still going to be dealing with this pandemic for the foreseeable future. We can’t interact with each other as if we’re on different teams. We’re not.”

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