Vermont had under 40 deaths per 100,000, while most rural states have had three times that number. Vermont is located between the early epicenters of the pandemic, Boston and New York. Midwest and southern states had time to prepare as the pandemic started on the coasts. Yet Vermont with a vulnerable elderly population, located between the epicenter of the pandemic with thousands of folks fleeing New York and Boston managed the Pandemic better than any other state.
In Wisconsin we had over 3 times the deaths per 100,000 folks. After comparing the the two states there are some huge contrasts. Wisconsin’s rural areas tend to be much more libertarian. At the county board meetings hundreds of folks spoke about their constitutional rights, the bill of rights and fear of the health officer. County board speakers expressed a fear of public health nurses imposing draconian measures limiting freedom. Noble Prize winning economist Milton Friedman, a champion of libertarian ideals, was clear that rights and freedoms ended with an epidemic where you could infect your neighbor. In these circumstances, you have an absolute obligation and responsibility to protect one another with every measure possible. Conservatives in Wisconsin made the debate all about personal rights and freedoms, making fighting a pandemic, not a policy and public health issue, but a cultural war with what they perceived as an assault on their liberty. When we turn a policy debate into a political debate, we all lose.
In contrast to Wisconsin, Republican Vermont Governor Phil Scott established a Covid-19 war room and pushed public health measures. Vermont, as opposed to its neighbor New Hampshire whose motto is “live free or die” chose not to live free and die. In Vermont you did not have an extreme form of libertarian revolt to Covid-19 public health measures and despite not having the warning time of Wisconsin or Florida had less than a third of the deaths. Vermont set up a Covid-19 war room. Vermont imposed strict reopening standards, which were accepted by it citizens. Vermont has reached 80% of its population having at least one vaccination. Vermont, by hitting Covid-19 public health benchmarks early, moved up reopening early. Vermont treated Covid-19 as a public health issue first relying on sound public health policy. Vermont did not have hundreds of folks attacking long time public health officials at a county board meeting.
Vermont’s economic outcome after Covid-19 is exceptional. Vermont has one of the two lowest unemployment rates in the nation. Vermont is flush with revenue taking advantage of Covid-19 federal government stimulus money and by controlling Covid-19 was able to keep tax revenues stable. As for a Republican Governor in a state with Bernie Sanders as Senator and where Biden won by 35 points, Phil Scott won his election by 40 points. The lesson of Covid-19 for all politicians two fold. First treat a pandemic or any other sudden catastrophic occurrence as a public policy issue, not a cultural issue and you will do well. Second, stop turning policy issues into political battles and you and your constituents will be better off.