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Vermont's COVID modeler on returning to his day job in financial regulation

The state Department of Financial Regulation pivoted toward COVID modeling after the virus emerged in Vermont.
Maria Stavreva
The state Department of Financial Regulation pivoted toward COVID modeling after the virus emerged in Vermont.

Mike Pieciak has been one of the state government’s most visible faces during the pandemic.

His data presentations forecasting the spread of COVID-19 were a fixture of the governor’s weekly televised virus briefings.

Now, Pieciak has largely returned to his actual job, according to recent reporting by Seven Days.

That’s as commissioner of the state Department of Financial Regulation, a typically low-key agency that watches over the banking and insurance industries to protect Vermonters’ bank accounts.

VPR's Grace Benninghoff spoke to Pieciak about his COVID forecasting role over the past two years, and what’s ahead with financial regulation. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Grace Benninghoff: How will you remember your time as COVID modeler, and really becoming one of the public faces of the state government during the first couple years of the pandemic?

A man poses for the camera.
Vermont Department of Financial Regulation
Mike Pieciak

Mike Pieciak: I think back to the early days of the pandemic, when there was so much that was unknown. How should we respond to this? What is the best approach? And I think about those early months, and the resiliency that Vermonters showed, and the care that Vermonters showed for each other — that really was heartwarming, and something that will stick with me forever.

And I think that was really ultimately the key to success for our response, that we had a population that was willing to listen to the data, to the science. They understood the policies and the rationale for them. And then they acted accordingly to protect themselves, their families, their communities. And I think that's still something that's pretty unique to our state — and that we should be really proud of.

Can you tell me a little bit about taking on the COVID forecasting responsibilities in the first place, back in March 2020? How did that come to be? Did it seem outside of the normal realm of your of your job as financial regulator?

It was certainly a unique experience. You know, it was just after the first case had been reported in Vermont, and the governor called a number of us together, a number of his cabinet members. And I remember the meeting starting and he said, "You know, Mike, you might be wondering why I asked you to be here." And I kind of was actually, although I assumed it had to do with health insurance, because we regulate the health insurance marketplace. And I thought maybe it had to do with how are we going to pay for testing, and treatment and things of that nature.

But then the governor had a list of things that he was focused on and concerned about, and one of them was: how will the virus impact Vermont? Specifically, will it be a unique impact because we are an older state? So if we were going to see more people falling seriously ill to the virus, how many hospital beds would we need? How many ICU beds? How many ventilators? And he asked if we would start to do some of that work.

So we really felt the responsibility of trying to plan out what would be some of the worst case scenarios, what would be more likely scenarios. And then using that information to build our response plan to make sure we had enough hospital beds, that we had enough ventilators and the like.

And the first thing I did, which was critical, was trying to identify the right team that we had at [the Department of Financial Regulation]. Both internally — some of our folks, you might not think working on a pandemic would be a natural fit — but we have individuals that have experience with actuarial work with financial modeling. We brought those minds in. We went outside of the department trying to find expertise with infectious disease modeling and the like. Really critical to have that team in place, and I really feel fortunate to be able to work with individuals that I have worked with, and still do work with through this day.

What does your shift back to financial work suggest about where we are in the pandemic now?

Two years later we are in a very unique place, I think, in the pandemic. There's still a lot of unknowns about what might happen around the corner in terms of the next variant, what might happen in terms of people experiencing long COVID.

But we're at a place where we have vaccinations to protect people, we have treatments that help people stay out of the hospital or recover in the hospital. And we do know a lot more about the virus. So I think we we are at a place in Vermont —it really benefits from its high vaccination rate — where we can take a pragmatic approach to the future. When cases are low, when hospital counts are low, then society is moving forward. And really, people are demanding that they live their lives in ways that they did prior to the pandemic.

When things might take a different turn at some point in the future, I think we just have to have that flexibility as a society to be willing to take certain measures to protect ourselves and our communities. So, I think we often like to think about things in black and white. It's a state of emergency; It's not a state of emergency. And we might just need to have a little bit more of a flexible approach over the next number of months, and number of years even.

Now that you are firmly back in the consumer protection world, what are you planning to tackle moving forward?

I think all departments across state government should be focusing on, the issue of affordability. All of us have a role to play in that regard. We know that inflation is impacting everybody across the country. It's impacting people here in Vermont. But our demographics in the Northeast, and in Vermont particularly, are also contributing to some affordability issues.

So when I think about affordability as it really relates to our department, I think about financial services. That Vermonters can get competitive rates when it comes to auto insurance and homeowners insurance, when it comes to lending, when it comes to investments and the like. So ensuring that our markets are viable, ensuring that they're efficient, that they can provide those low-cost benefits to Vermonters.

But there are issues as well — like housing, making sure banks have the support that they need to do lendin for new homebuyers — to help Vermonters stay in their homes as well. And that's just a critical issue that is facing our state. How do we get more people to stay in Vermont, or to come to Vermont, when housing is so scarce? And I think our banks and our credit unions and our financial firms have been working on this issue for years. And they have a critical role to play to tackle that over the next decade.

And then health insurance is also a key issue on affordability. How do we ensure that Vermonters can afford health insurance? And that runs the spectrum as well, from those that are older, that are getting care, to those that have families, to those that are just starting out in their career. So those are issues that we all need to look at, like I said, across state government.

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