NBC5 In Depth: Sitting down with Vermont’s COVID-19 modeling leader
Updated: 6:19 PM EDT Jun 8, 2021
this week’s modeling Look pretty good. Yeah, I would say this is the most optimistic that we’ve been during the entire pandemic. You know, I mentioned back in march that we were really optimistic and that was because we saw the beginning of the impact that vaccinations had on those that were over 60/70 years old, their rates started to drop. But now the rates are dropping for everybody. And you can see that it’s from the impact of the vaccine. And you can also see that the region, I mean the region, not just Vermont, but New England has really high uptake of the vaccine and the rates are dropping across New England. So we won’t be an island in Vermont will be well protected in terms of the entire Northeast, you know, having broad vaccination coverage. So we’re feeling really optimistic and Quebec’s numbers are looking good better. Yeah, Quebec is really doing well. And so is all of Canada. I mean, they were behind on the vaccine front and you know, that was what really the story was for much of the winter. But they’ve ended up getting plenty of the vaccine at least for a first dose. So they’re close to 60% vaccinated on a first dose closer to 6% when it’s fully vaccinated. They’re using a strategy where they prioritize the first dose for everybody. But they didn’t have the supply, they didn’t have the supply. But uh you know, Prime Minister has said that they believe by the end of june they’ll have enough supply where they can fast track the second doses as well. So Canada the numbers are looking good on the vaccination front. But they’re also looking good in the covid front. They’re coming down nicely over the last two months or so, but just two months ago. Yeah. You had some pretty grim news to deliver every week. Yeah, for sure. I mean we had some tough times there right after the holidays, you know, leading up to the winter, we knew that the winter was going to be tough. We spend a lot of time indoors in Vermont in the winter, it’s gonna be cold, that’s what we’re primarily worried about. And then of course it happened. And even though we had a suspect that it was going to be bad, it was it was worse than we wanted it to be obviously and worse than vermonters wanted it to be. But but we still fared Well when you compare it to the rest of the country during that period of time, you know, fewer cases, fewer deaths. How did you fall into this role of the state’s chief modeler? Well remember remember the day, I think it was March 13, it was right at the beginning of the pandemic. The governor asked a few folks that come up to the office and we were meeting in person at that time still. And the first thing he said when we got there and he entered the room was that mike, you might be wondering why I asked you to be here among this group. And he said, yeah, kind of a, you know, a lot of questions at the time were who’s paying for the tests and who’s paying for the health care and so I thought maybe you had to do with health insurance and but then he asked if we would look at the impact that Vermont might have As a result of the virus because we’re an older state, because we’re one of the states with the highest 65 and older population. And so far the data that had been coming out of China at the time suggested that people that were older, we’re having horse outcomes. So that was the initial question was how are we going to fare relative to other states, relative to other countries because of our population? And, and we started, You know that next day and never stopped, right, 143 briefings uh, later, I mean, how did you approach this task? You had to deliver some pretty grim news. Um so I thought it was critical that the information obviously be 100% accurate, as accurate as we possibly could make it. And then it also is accessible that vermonters could understand it, you know, because if either of those were not true, we weren’t going to have the trust of Vermont and we weren’t going to be successful. So the first thing we did is really try to assemble a team both internally and externally trying to get the best minds that we could get in the field. So we had a really strong team in our department, people that have actuarial background, uh people that have background in financial modeling, you know, it’s not epidemiological modelling, but there is some symmetry there. And then we went out and found those external experts uh infectious disease expert at Columbia University that has been very generous with his time, an infectious disease expert at at Northeastern, similarly very gracious with his time. And then we ended up hiring a consulting from Oliver Wyman that had a strong team of infectious disease experts, people that had provided advice to the CDC on their infectious disease modeling and uh preparation. So we had a really strong team internal and external. And we made sure that we had the latest science, the latest data that the reports like I said we’re accurate, had a process for making sure that they were accurate. And then of course the big thing was making sure people could understand because it’s really complex information. You also had to brief the administration internally including the governor. And you know, it Included giving him some bad news when we had cases sometimes 200 a day, a lot of deaths, although comparatively few relatives other states. But well what were your conversations like with him? You know, it must have been tough at times. Yeah, for sure. I mean we have a we had a built in structure where we provided briefings, you know, monday Wednesday friday morning. So that was really helpful to have the whole team, not just the governor but the whole covid response team in contact with each other, understanding what the data was in Vermont, what the data was in the region, what what’s happening on the ground from the health department. So it was challenging when, you know, you show um information that says, you know, the projections show that you know, we might be seeing 80 cases a day now, but we’re going to see maybe 203 100 cases a day, you know, in the next six weeks. Um and and then what do we do as a result, what policies do we implement? And the governor was never shy about implementing public health policies if Dr Levin and the health department recommended them and if the modeling and the data supported them. So that was always reassuring that we felt like we had the best possible policy response that we could uh to the pandemic at every stage of it. Whether it was last summer when things were relatively good or even this winter when there was much more challenging those briefings have made you a bit of a household name. Yeah. Usually people don’t know the Department of Financial Regulation Commissioner, so that’s definitely a little bit different. Well, let’s talk about some of those other responsibilities. You regulate banks, insurance companies, securities. Let me ask you about banks. There’s a lot of pent up demand. You were telling me that savings rates have increased, bank balances have look a little more rosy now. Certainly. Yes. Tell you people are going to be in a position to spend. Yeah, absolutely. I mean going into the pandemic, one of the things with my Department of Financial Regulation hat on that I was concerned about was the economy and what that would mean for our financial institutions with a strong enough to withstand the any economic downturn that we might face. And they were all really strong going into the pandemic. So we were in a good spot. But what happened in reality was that they all ended up doing quite well during the pandemic. The stock market, banks, insurance companies as well as relates to the banks though, we saw their deposits go up 35% from the beginning of the pandemic to this last quarter. So 35% is a pretty remarkable number. About three billion more dollars in our banks across Vermont. Then there were at the beginning of the pandemic, and really, where does that come from? It comes from consumers. You know, saving their money. A lot of people didn’t have the opportunity to spend money, we didn’t have the opportunity to go on trips. Uh you know, we weren’t going to events, we weren’t going and buying tickets to baseball games or, or shows. So there’s just a lot of money that people were able to save over the last 14 months. And as you say, uh, we already see consumer spending picking up. And, and certainly there’s quite a bit of money there, uh, in our, in our banks across the state, both for lending for businesses that want to grow or expand or, you know, have a project in mind, but also for consumers that are anxious to get out and return to more normal lifestyle, things would have looked very different had the federal government not stepped in. Yeah. So certainly the federal stimulus had a big impact. And when you look at the, at the stimulus payments in particular, that went to individuals, you see an uptick in consumer spending immediately following those stimulus checks. So that certainly propped up the economy propped up certainly revenues for the state of Vermont as well, which was critical for us to get out of this. And there’ll be some transition period, certainly between now and when we’re sort of the pandemic is behind us and we’re sort of on our way economically, but, but we’re in really strong footing for that to happen. And I don’t think we would have been there without that stimulus money we put on your insurance commissioner hat for a moment. Ah, Last year a lot of people didn’t go to the doctor long doctor’s offices were closed Dennis offices. You’re trying to make a decision about whether some of those health insurance premiums paid last year might be returned to consumers. Yeah, absolutely. Right. So we had, you know, obviously as you mentioned hospitals, doctors shut down. I mean, if you had a surgery that was non covid related, that was routine, You couldn’t get it done. I mean, it wasn’t, it was impossible to have that happen. And then as it got toward the end of the year when healthcare was opening up, it was difficult to get a doctor’s appointment as well to get a surgery appointment. So there has been um real depression in terms of the desire and the need to get health care, which has resulted in uh insurance companies, you know, not having to spend out as much money. So we’ve looked at this issue, we looked at the claims that have occurred over the past, you know, 14 months. Uh we looked at the premiums that were paid in over the last 14 months as well. And and we definitely noticed that there had been at the time that we had looked at the analysis that there had been some overpayment of premium relative to the amount of care that had been sought. The big question was, would that care come back in the beginning of this year? And that’s still an open question. But what we’re going to do is look at that again this month in june and finalised a report at the end of the month and say definitively whether or not care looks like it’s returning or whether health insurers did get more money than they should have because care had been reduced by such a significant degree. So the question would be, are those insurance companies going to see those claims rebound? Yeah, exactly. Yeah, Exactly. Right. I mean obviously the beginning part of the year, the pandemic was at its worst, but even at its worst doctor’s offices and hospitals were open able to do surgeries able to see patients. We expected care to come back. And then now that the pandemic really has subsided to a great degree. We anticipate that care if it is going to come back, would come back in april and may. So we’ll have that data and be able to look at it this month and like I said, make a final determination. What about proposed health insurance premium increases for the coming year? Those concern you. So there is some good news there. I mean any time insurance rates go up, it’s certainly concerning because people can’t always, it’s a is it something that is a significant portion of people’s household uh incomes that they have to pay on health insurance whenever they go up. It’s certainly concerning. Uh One bright spot that was in the rate filings is the decoupling, if you will of the market. So previously individuals and small businesses were in the same pool together. Uh and they basically paid premiums based on the expenses for everybody. Um because the federal government has increased the subsidies that they provide individuals, Vermont was able to decouple its market, allow the individuals to get greater federal subsidies. While the small businesses actually saw the rates go down and we saw that reflected in the rate where blue cross blue shield actually had a negative rate. The rates were going down for small businesses. And even in the M. V. P. Filing where the rates for small businesses were much lower than they were for individuals. So there there is good news. They’re small businesses will be paying less but also vermonters individuals will be paying less out of pocket because they’re bigger federal subsidies that are there for them. So both of those things are important but they’re a little bit under uh under the radar if you will. So after this week we had a day in which we had to new positive cases, uh, your work now done winding down or will you continue this modeling effort each week? Yeah. So certainly I hope my work is done because that will mean well beyond the pandemic and you know, things are back to normal. But I think we’ll keep a close eye on a vigilant eye on the data throughout the summer. Even though we don’t anticipate for the foreseeable future, any resurgence of the, of the virus. Even in the fall when we restart school and restart colleges, you know, there shouldn’t be a concern that we’ll see a resurgence. We’ll keep a close eye on next november, next december again when we all go back inside. Not that we’ll see anything close to what we experience. But will there be any uptick from the virus as well? That would be around the time when some people, if there is a booster where some people might need a booster shot, they’ll be coming up on a year of having the vaccine. So we’ll have to wait and see how the science develops in terms of how long the vaccines effective for. Um, but with the vaccination rates that we have, you know, we’re really well protected. Uh, and that should be something that vermonters are really proud of.
NBC5 In Depth: Sitting down with Vermont’s COVID-19 modeling leader
Updated: 6:19 PM EDT Jun 8, 2021
In Vermont, Mike Pieciak is normally the person focused on regulating banks and insurance companies from the capital. But for more than a year, the 37-year-old Department of Financial Regulation Commissioner has been standing in front of cameras to update the press and public on pandemic modeling. How did he assume such a public role? And what comes next as the state continues to see spread of the disease slow? Open the video player above to view a full interview between Pieciak and NBC5 News reporter Stewart Ledbetter.
In Vermont, Mike Pieciak is normally the person focused on regulating banks and insurance companies from the capital.
But for more than a year, the 37-year-old Department of Financial Regulation Commissioner has been standing in front of cameras to update the press and public on pandemic modeling.
How did he assume such a public role? And what comes next as the state continues to see spread of the disease slow?
Open the video player above to view a full interview between Pieciak and NBC5 News reporter Stewart Ledbetter.