Editorial Roundup: New England

Recent editorials of regional and national interest from New England’s newspapers:

CONNECTICUT:

Coronavirus protocols more important than ever

The Connecticut Post

Oct. 19

With cases of the coronavirus on the rise and state officials trying to limit its spread, Connecticut in recent days faced the embarrassing prospect of having to put itself on its own quarantine list.

As Gov. Ned Lamont noted on Thursday, the list of states with travel restrictions has fluctuated over the months of the COVID-19 pandemic, starting at nine and rising to include more than three-quarters of states at its highest levels. With a cutoff of a seven-day average positivity rate higher than 10 per 100,000 residents, and Connecticut approaching that double-digit level, the state was nearly at its own designated breaking point.

The list isn’t just for bookkeeping. Travelers arriving from highly infected states are supposed to quarantine for 14 days or face a $500 fine, something that clearly isn’t feasible if Connecticut itself is over the limit. As Lamont said, it’s time to rethink the entire idea, which may have made sense in the spring but is of increasingly less use as numbers tick up nearly everywhere.

For all that Connecticut has done well to keep numbers low over the summer, it’s undeniable that the state has paid a comparatively high price. Measured by coronavirus deaths per capita, Connecticut is still near the top of the list, owing mostly to the disastrous spring months when the entire Northeast, particularly in nursing homes, experienced the worst of the crisis. Even as numbers have spiked in the South and Midwest, the number of deaths has not in most places matched the figures that New England and New York saw in the pandemic’s early days.

All of this is why no one should consider being complacent. The danger is real. Still, it’s hard not to conclude that many people around the state are getting more comfortable letting down their guard, wearing a mask incorrectly or not at all, or getting together in groups they might have shied away from a few months ago. Medical experts have put out warnings about small-group gatherings in homes, which may seem harmless enough but can serve to spread the virus between unsuspecting parties who may not even know they’re infected.

Everyone is tired of the semi-quarantine we’ve all been living under since March. Colder weather means it will only get harder from here, and a vaccine, whenever that comes, won’t solve the problem instantly. This is something we have to get used to, painful as that will be.

At the same time, the state has unveiled a color-coded system to alert residents of high coronavirus danger, with Danbury the lone municipality in western Connecticut to qualify as red, the most serious designation, in the system’s initial release. As some restrictions are loosened in an effort to help the economy, this could prove a useful tool for residents unsure of what dangers they could be facing.

Whether in state or out of state, the problem shows no sign of receding. It’s difficult to fight what we can’t see, but we have to try. Limiting the damage from a long, cold winter, which could mean the difference in thousands of people’s lives, must take a top priority for everyone.

Online: https://bit.ly/35wEzP3

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MASSACHUSETTS:

Vote ‘yes’ on Questions 1 and 2

Daily Hampshire Gazette

Oct. 22

While there’s little question that Trump versus Biden is the major draw in this year’s general election, Massachusetts residents will also decide two important ballot measures on Nov. 3. One could change the process in which some state and federal officials are elected, while the other would determine how people repair their vehicles. We support both of these questions.

Question 1, known as right to repair, would update a 2013 state law that allows vehicle owners and independent repair shops the same access as carmakers to the vehicle computer information, or mechanical data, used to diagnose problems. This diagnosis typically occurs by plugging a handheld code reader into a physical port in the vehicle.

The 2013 law contains a loophole that right-to-repair supporters correctly say needs to be closed. The law specifically excludes access to “telematics,” or the diagnostic and repair information that newer cars can send wirelessly straight to the dealer. That process cuts out independent repair shops and do-it-yourselfers, putting them at a competitive disadvantage.

Question 1 would give vehicle owners the right to access this “telematics” data and share it with their mechanics. This is sensible law. Vehicle repairs are a major expense for many people — often unexpectedly — and people should have the right to choose where they get that work done without car manufacturers controlling the information.

Car industry experts estimate that more than half of the new cars sold in 2018 in North America included telematics services, and some 90% of 2021 models have the capability. Do we really want carmakers controlling so much of this market?

It’s not a surprise that car manufacturers like Ford, General Motors, Toyota and Honda are dumping millions into encouraging voters to reject Question 1. They and other opponents are focusing on privacy laws, arguing that the change is more about collecting private information — think location data in real time, as one example — than leveling the playing field for independent shops.

That argument rings hollow, especially given that the text of the law refers to mechanical data that is “used for or otherwise related to the diagnosis, repair or maintenance of the vehicle.”

If the question doesn’t pass, as technology continues to evolve, dealerships could box out independent repair shops and auto parts stores, creating a monopoly on the car repair industry.

Local mechanics are an intrinsic part of every Valley community. They deserve our support.

Ranked-choice voting

Question 2, referred to as ranked-choice voting, is an idea whose time has arrived. Wouldn’t it be great if we elected people to important offices that more than 50% of us support? That’s called a majority, and there are too many times when it doesn’t happen.

Also known as instant-runoff voting, this system allows voters to rank multiple candidates in order of preference. If one candidate fails to receive a majority of votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Ballots ranking that candidate highest are then redistributed to the voter’s second choice. That process is repeated until one candidate has a majority.

If approved, ranked-choice voting would take place for primary and general elections for state executive officials, state legislators, federal congressional and senate seats, and certain county offices beginning in 2022.

Not only is it wise to have officials working for us who won the support of a majority of their constituents, but such a system will likely spur more people to run for office, and, we hope, lead to elected officials who better reflect the diversity of constituents they serve. This benefit banks on the idea that candidates can run for office without fear of being a “spoiler” by splitting the votes among two candidates with similar viewpoints. Voters, meanwhile, won’t have to “strategize” about who to vote for to avoid the possible election of a candidate they don’t like. Instead, they can pick two candidates with similar viewpoints.

Ranked-choice voting is not complicated, as some opponents have characterized it. It is a different, and we believe, a more fair way to best represent the desires of an electorate.

The idea is not new. Voters in 2002 and 2004, in the 3rd Hampshire and 1st Franklin state representative districts, supported ranked-choice voting. The system is used in many other countries, by Maine for its state elections, and by 20 cities nationwide. Locally, Amherst and Easthampton have adopted ranked-choice voting, though neither community has started using it.

With ranked-choice voting, democracy wins.

Online: https://bit.ly/35u70Nu

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MAINE:

Opioid settlement, ODs show we’re still playing catchup with addiction

Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel/CentralMaine.com

Oct. 23

We found out Wednesday that Purdue Pharma, the company behind the painkiller OxyContin, will pay for its key role in jumpstarting the nationwide opioid epidemic.

At the same time, we found out why the $8.3 billion settlement will always be too little, too late.

Fatal drug overdoses surged in Maine through the first half of 2020, increasing 27% over the final six months of 2019, when they were already rising following a fleeting dip in 2018. Data are still coming in from the rest of the country, but all indications are that fatal overdoses are rising nearly everywhere else too.

When all is said and done, 2020 will likely be the country’s deadliest ever year in its long battle with addiction.

Some part of the increase this year can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. The increased isolation has allowed addiction to flourish, taking a toll on mental health while separating people from their support and treatment systems. It’s just one way that the country’s failure to limit the length and severity of the virus’ reign here has caused death and misery.

However, the rise in overdose deaths started long before COVID-19. After trending better in 2018, fatal overdoses reached an all-time high in 2019. They were up about 16% in the first three months of 2020, too.

Why? It’s been years since opioids first became a problem, and still the response does not meet the challenge.

The most effective kinds of treatment are still only available to a small fraction of those with opioid use disorder. Still, too many people go to jail or prison as a result of their addiction, only making matters worse and more costly — for the individual and society as a whole.

And still there is widespread opposition to harm reduction. The lack of needle exchanges has contributed to a rise in disease and held back initiatives that could effectively reach out to people who need help. People recoil at the idea of safe-injection sites, so people end up taking drugs on the street, or in cars or public bathrooms, increasing the odds of a fatal overdose or an unsafe interaction.

Meanwhile, the drug problem is changing — and in many ways getting worse.

OxyContin, released in 1996, was hailed by its manufacturer as a game-changer — a powerful painkiller that was nonetheless nonaddictive. Purdue Pharma used false marketing and kickbacks to doctors to spread that fantasy, and prescriptions took off. So did opioid addiction.

Over the years, the billions of doses of OxyContin and other opioid painkillers put out into the world allowed addiction to sink its teeth into untold number of Americans. When the danger was realized, prescriptions were cut back, allowing cheap heroin to fill the void.

Now, powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl have supplanted heroin, making the drug problem much more deadly. Stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine, too, are being used in combination with opioids, leading to more overdoses.

Maine has taken many of the right steps in recent years, putting more money toward treatment and harm reduction. On Wednesday, Gov. Janet Mills announced that she is putting mobile overdose response units in every county to promote prevention and help connect people to treatment.

The state also says it wants to concentrate on those who have experienced a nonfatal overdose in the recent past — a major risk factor for a future fatal overdose. That’s smart.

But the settlement with Purdue Pharma, nearly 25 years after their product began capturing and killing Americans, shows that we are still struggling to catch up with the drug epidemic.

Online: https://bit.ly/31ApZVx

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VERMONT:

We are watching

Times Argus

Oct. 21

An important part of what we do each day is to hold elected bodies accountable. To that end, a lot of what we do depends on transparency.

There are state statutes in place that clearly define the rules that town, city and school boards and committees need to follow. Meetings need to be warned in advance; minutes of the meeting need to be kept and posted; discussions need to be held in public.

As the eyes and ears of the public, journalists require access to public meetings. If they are unable to attend, reporters will often consult recordings or public access recordings of public meetings, or they read through the minutes of the meetings after they are posted. Many times, reporters will have follow-up questions that members of the public, often too timid to ask about, won’t necessarily ask.

In many ways, small-town newspaper reporters are professional meeting-goers. In any given week, our reporters are sitting through (live or recorded) hours of meetings in order to suss out news stories. (A good reporter can pull two or three story ideas out of the most tedious, boring meeting out there.)

Since COVID-19 has pushed most meeting onto an online format - usually Zoom - reporters are tuning in and watching just like everyone else. And as we have seen in high-profile public meetings, like the discussion of defunding the police department in Montpelier and the ongoing Rutland High School mascot discussion – not everyone on the call is a resident. Officials moderating these meetings are attempting to be accommodating, but they often are giving precedence in the local discussion to locals.

In many ways, Zoom has become a valuable tool in transparency. And it makes “attending” public meetings far more accessible and convenient. How great is it as a citizen to join a meeting from a laptop while sitting next to the woodstove?

And yet, Zoom (and other platforms like Zoom) are also providing us with an inside glimpse into the personal space and lives of public officials. It is curious and intriguing where individuals choose to set up their camera, what the backdrop might be. Quite famously now, a select board chairman in one town, known to be a staunch Republican, sits with his shotguns, hunting rifles and a deer head behind him on the wall. Others, trying to be nondescript, will “broadcast” from the kitchen table, giving participants a glimpse at color choices for cupboards and wallpaper.

As journalists covering meetings, we see a lot. And we are paid observers; it is our job to pay attention - whether it is during a meeting in a room full of people or on a Zoom call - to what is happening during the meeting: who is fidgeting during certain discussions, or taking copious notes; who is making eye contact with who during debates; who is looking energized that their case is being made for them. Body language and unspoken action speak volumes to individuals who are paying attention.

So it has been dismaying to us that during some of the most recent high-profile discussions in our communities, our reporters (and really anyone who is paying attention) have noticed more subversive conversations taking place.

It is not hard to watch a person in one Zoom panel pick up their cellphone, type a text and then put down their phone … only to have another board member in another Zoom panel pick up their phone and smirk.

Politics is definitely about sniping and posturing. But we would remind public officials that decorum matters. Let this be a warning: How you act during a meeting is being watched (and recorded these days) and that digital trail of texts and emails are privy to public records requests and hard questions from observant reporters. And if push comes to shove, we will happily ask for them.

As watchdogs of public servants, know that we are watching. And we are not really impressed with what we are seeing. As the referee says before the match, “Let’s keep it clean.”

Online: https://bit.ly/3okWGjs

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