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LePage sketches outline of his COVID policy

Paul LePage
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Former Gov. Paul LePage, sitting in a Lexus SC 430, talks to supporters at a rally against the executive orders by Gov. Janet Mills to keep some Maine businesses closed to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, Saturday, May 16, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.

So far, former Republican Gov. Paul LePage has not made pandemic mitigation strategies, or a lack thereof, a focal point of his bid for a third term. However, he’s gradually providing answers to a question that might be top of mind for 2022 midterm voters: What would Maine’s pandemic response have looked like if he was governor?

According to the Bangor Daily News, LePage last week zeroed in on Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ vaccination requirement for health care workers, saying he would eliminate it on “day one.” He also said that there should be less concern about the disease spreading among children.

“What you should do is let them all have it, get that natural immunity and that’s when you’re going to achieve herd immunity,” said LePage, according to the BDN.

LePage, who says he’s vaccinated, also encouraged others to get their shots, although he’s against requiring them. He also advocated for an aggressive public relations campaign promoting the safety and efficacy of the vaccines.

Democrats were quick to criticize LePage’s “let them all have it” strategy for children. While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control considers kids less at risk for serious illness and hospitalization, they can spread the disease like anyone else, including among the parents and grandparents who live with and take care of them. Additionally, they are at risk. According to Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah, there were eight children hospitalized Wednesday with COVID statewide, four of whom were in intensive care units. That was a small percentage of total hospitalizations, but it shows that kids are not immune from serious illness.

Nevertheless, LePage’s comment highlights the growing and hardening public divide over risk tolerance and outright fatigue associated with the pandemic. Some voters might be receptive to the “natural immunity” approach for kids, particularly parents who worry about vaccine safety or who are distressed over school closures because of COVID cases. The debate over critical race theory has dominated the political debate over public schools, including in the Virginia race for governor this fall. However, there’s a growing consensus among political observers that school closures because of COVID are frustrating some parents.

Of course, views of COVID safety in schools are split. While some parents are bewildered by testing and quarantine requirements to keep their kids in school, others are worried about sending them at all. The Associated Press reported this week that parents in Brooklyn, N.Y. were keeping their kids at home amid another surge fueled by the omicron variant.

Democrats seem to be trying to walk a tightrope balancing these divergent views by promoting masking, pool testing and resisting school closures.

“We don’t have to shut down schools because of COVID-19,” President Joe Biden said during a press conference this week. “We can keep our K-12 schools open. That’s exactly what we should be doing.”

Biden’s approach, as well as Mills’, are a far cry from LePage’s recommendations for kids and COVID, but arguably reflect a recognition that closing schools is politically perilous, not to mention harmful to childhood education.

It’s not entirely clear how LePage’s vision for a public relations campaign to promote vaccines would differ from the one the Mills administration is currently running. (The persuasiveness of some of the TV spots is unquestionably in the eye of the beholder.) However, his apparent support for any sort of pro-vaccination message might be welcomed by Mills, who this fall challenged Maine Republicans to promote the vaccines, and anyone else uneasy with some in the GOP’s increasing alliance with anti-vaccine activists.

It’s no secret how LePage viewed Mills’ business, travel and gathering restrictions, which she slowly eased amid decreased case counts in 2020 and eventually ended as COVID vaccines became widely available last spring. In 2020, LePage participated in a so-called “reopen” demonstration and he later teamed up with President Donald Trump to tear into her pandemic response. (LePage also offered an alternative to Mills’ former quarantine requirement for out-of-state visitors: He suggested that tourists should be stopped at Maine border crossings and provide their phone number and final destination.)

Paul LePage
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Former Maine Gov. Paul LePage speaks at a campaign rally held by Eric Trump, son of President Donald Trump, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2020, in Saco, Maine.

More recently LePage and Republicans are focusing their critiques on the governor’s vaccine mandate for health care workers, which they continue to claim is worsening the situation at hospitals jammed with COVID patients.

This week the Maine GOP attempted to frame the Biden administration’s dispatching of ambulance crews to the state as a bailout for the health care system that “Mills has screwed up” with the vaccine mandate. What the party failed to mention is that the EMT and ambulance worker shortage has been a problem for more than a decade, including during the eight years LePage was in office; Maine lost an average of 184 EMT and ambulance workers each year between 2013 and 2018, according to Maine Emergency Services data.

Additionally, the EMT and ambulance worker shortage is a national problem. In October the American Ambulance Association highlighted the industry challenges in a letter to Democratic and Republican congressional leaders. It noted that turnover ranged between 20% and 30% annually — or 100% every four years.

That’s probably why the Biden administration didn’t just send ambulance crews to Maine, but also Vermont (which has a Republican governor), New Hampshire (which has a Republican governor), Arizona (which has a Republican governor) and New York (which has a Democratic governor).

Republican bails from CD-2 primary against ‘Little Brucey’

The Republican contest to take on Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden has narrowed again. And COVID-19 is at least partly to blame.

State Rep. Mike Perkins of Oakland announced this week that he is dropping out of the Republican primary for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District and will instead run for a vacant Maine Senate seat. In media interviews, Perkins said he decided to scale back his plans after nearly losing a battle with COVID-19.

Perkins told the Lewiston Sun Journal that he was so sick in the ICU that, at one point, doctors told his wife that he might not make it. Perkins’ wife was also extremely ill with COVID-19 at the time, but both are now recovering. Perkins had previously said that his doctor had recommended against receiving a COVID-19 vaccine based on a recent bout with Bell’s palsy.

Perkins’ withdrawal leaves four candidates (officially, at least) in the Republican primary.

The presumed frontrunner is former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, who has already received support from the national Republican Party in his rematch against Golden. Poliquin served two terms in Washington before losing to Golden in 2018 after a ranked-choice runoff.

But the number of Republicans challenging Poliquin in the June primary — not to mention Perkins’ reference to him as “Little Brucey Poliquin” — shows discontent within GOP ranks toward the former congressman, a wealthy investment banker.

Liz Caruso of Caratunk arguably has the highest profile among the other candidates. She was a vocal opponent of Central Maine Power’s transmission line corridor through western Maine and served as one of the spokespeople for the Question 1 referendum campaign to block the corridor.

Garret Swazey of Bangor joined the race earlier this month. And veteran Sean Joyce of Newburgh announced his candidacy in October. While Caruso is the first selectman in the small town of Caratunk, neither Swazey nor Joyce appear to have held political office before.

For his part, Perkins told the Sun Journal that he doesn’t plan to endorse Poliquin or anyone else in the CD2 primary.

“I don’t want to piss off little Brucey Poliquin,” Perkins said. “But he has a hard run.”

Perkins plans to run for the District 16 seat in the Maine Senate. Republican Sen. Scott Cyrway is term-limited from seeking a fifth consecutive term representing the district, which includes the towns of Albion, Benton, Clinton, Unity, Waterville, Winslow and Fairfield.

Programming note

The approaching holidays will result in some changes to the Pulse schedule this week and next week.

There will be no podcast this week, but we’ll be back next week with the podcast posting Thursday afternoon instead of Friday. Next week’s broadcast excerpt of the Pulse will air Friday during Morning Edition instead of its usual time slot during All Things Considered at 5:35 p.m.

Happy holidays to everyone and stay safe out there.

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