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Politics

Gov. Janet Mills’ Latest COVID Challenge Hinges On Vaccines Outrunning Virus Variants

Virus Outbreak Maine
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP file
Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a news conference where she announced new plans for the stay-at-home order and other measures to help combat the coronavirus pandemic, Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills is accelerating her administration’s vaccination drive as it races against a surge in new cases of COVID-19, particularly among younger Maine residents.

The race between inoculations and the virus and its highly transmissible variants could be as politically consequential for Mills as it is for public health.

Like virtually all other U.S. governors, Mills has led the state’s pandemic response by using emergency powers to make unilateral decisions about business and gathering restrictions, mask wearing and vaccination prioritization. Nationally, this centralized decision making has cut two ways: While some governors have received a lot of the credit for responses deemed successful by their constituents, they can also assume sole responsibility when something bad happens.

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Early in the pandemic, governors who responded quickly and decisively with virus mitigation measures were rewarded in public opinion surveys. That was true of many New England governors, including Mills, who in April of last year had a favorability rating of 67%.

However, as the pandemic churns through its one-year anniversary, there’s some evidence that some governors are paying a political price for assuming most of the decision-making responsibilities.

There have been few public opinion surveys of Mills' favorability since Morning Consult stopped updating its publicly available measurements of governors in 2020. A limited survey conducted by Harvard, Rutgers and Northeastern universities last September suggested Mills' popularity had slipped to 54%. A Pan Atlantic SMS survey in October pegged her favorability at 58%.

Over that same period, some governors who earned high marks from their constituents early in the pandemic have watched their popularity tumble. In August of last year, 78% of Massachusetts residents approved of Republican Gov. Charlie Baker. Last month, a tracking survey found that his approval had fallen to 52%, a dip that some have attributed to his administration’s rocky vaccination rollout.

Mills has taken some criticism for Maine’s constantly evolving vaccination program, particularly when her administration changed to age-based prioritization. However, she has accelerated eligibility three times in the past few weeks and, this week, her administration began allowing COVID vaccinations for all people ages 16 and older.

Mills’ decision coincides with another surge in COVID cases that is particularly acute among younger residents. In March, Mainers under age 30 accounted for about 34% of all new cases, according to Maine CDC data. The same age group drove high case counts this week.

“There are concerning signs on the horizon there,” Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah said during a briefing this week. “At the same time, vaccination rates are going up. The question is, can we outrun this increase? ... If any state has a good shot of outrunning this increase in case rates, it is going to be Maine.”

Shah might be correct.

As of Thursday, Maine was averaging nearly 16,000 doses administered each day; 43% of those eligible have received a first dose, while 30% have had their final dose. The state ranks fourth in the country in vaccination rates when adjusting for population, according to a Bloomberg News tracking page.

Additionally, falling infection rates among age groups that had previously been at the front of the vaccine line suggests the Mills administration could benefit from the early opening for people ages 16 and older. If vaccine supply and vaccination rates continue to swell, the state could begin to level COVID infections among the younger residents that are currently driving up case counts.

But the race is on.

Reports of rising infections and hospitalizations in the Upper Midwest have prompted some public health officials there to call for the resumption of business and gathering restrictions. So far, governors in the region have been reluctant to reinstitute measures that fueled demonstrations last spring organized by conservative groups.

Likewise Mills has repeatedly shown little inclination to return to the spring of 2020, when her business and gathering restrictions were criticized by former President Donald Trump and former Gov. Paul LePage, who has repeatedly suggested that he will challenge her in 2022.

Nationwide, Republicans are hoping COVID restrictions taken by Democratic governors in 2020 will come back to haunt them in reelection campaigns. The effectiveness of that strategy could depend on whether voters sign onto hindsight criticism of emergency actions taken during a centenary pandemic created by a novel coronavirus that originated in China.

For Mills and other Democratic governors, the easiest way to blunt such criticism is to squash the virus and recharge stalled economies. Their hopes hinge on the success of their vaccination programs.

Pingree involved in Capitol riot probe

Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree is playing a part in Democrats’ investigation of the Jan. 6 insurrection by extremist Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol.

Pingree is the chairwoman of a House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Department of the Interior, and with that, the U.S. Park Police. The Park Police run security for the National Mall and Ellipse, which is where the Jan. 6 riot originated when Trump urged his supporters to march on the Capitol as Congress was completing the largely ceremonial process of certifying the presidential election.

The Park Police is one of more than a dozen agencies that Democrats have asked to turn over communications and documents related to the insurrection. While much of the scrutiny of the Jan. 6 insurrection has centered on the response by U.S. Capitol Police, the Park Police are also a subject of the probe because they were largely unable to support their legislative counterparts in defending the Capitol because of chronic underfunding and staffing.

The document request follows Democrats' decision to launch a probe of the insurrection after House Republicans balked at authorizing an independent inquiry resembling the commission that investigated the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Pingree has expressed enthusiastic support for the probe. Federal prosecutors have said there will be 400 defendants charged for their role in the riot. Among them is Kyle Fitzsimons, a 37-year-old Lebanon man who has been indicted on 10 charges, including two counts of bodily harm against police officers.

A court filing last week accused Fitzsimons of calling Pingree’s congressional office weeks before the insurrection to warn “we’re coming for her.”

So far, Fitzsimons is the only Maine resident charged by federal prosecutors for participating in a riot led by white supremacists, anti-government extremists and Trump supporters.

This week a federal judge ordered Fitzsimons to remain in jail while awaiting trial.

GOP stiff-arm

President Joe Biden this week vowed to “bring Republicans to the White House” to discuss a possible bipartisan agreement on his massive infrastructure spending plan.

“Any Republican who wants to get this done, I invite,” he said Wednesday.

He received a cool response from the 10 Republicans most likely to collaborate on an infrastructure package after asserting that they “didn’t move an inch” during previous negotiations on the COVID stimulus bill that’s now law.”

Among them is U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who joined nine other GOP members in a joint statement that questioned Democrats’ commitment to bipartisan negotiations. The statement noted that the 10 Republicans who joined Biden in talks at the White House over the winter to discuss a bipartisan deal on a COVID stimulus bill were spurned when Congressional Democrats immediately decided to pass the spending plan on their own.

“The Administration roundly dismissed our effort as wholly inadequate in order to justify its go-it-alone strategy,” the statement said. “Fewer than 24 hours after our meeting in the Oval Office, the Senate Democratic Leader began the process of triggering reconciliation which precluded Republican participation and allowed for the package to pass without a single Republican vote.”

Democrats had criticized the Republican COVID proposal as unserious, potentially leading them into fruitless negotiations that would have delayed passage of the bill. They eventually used a process known as budget reconciliation to pass the American Rescue Plan on their own.

Democratic leaders may try to use reconciliation again to pass infrastructure spending, but they first need to convince their members to support it. That’s especially true in the Senate, where Democrats would need all 50 of their members in order to force a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Kamala Harris.

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