Vaccines a hot topic during first gubernatorial debate

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Democratic gubernatorial challenger Rebecca Holcombe went on the offensive Monday night, attacking Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman for his earlier stand on vaccines and what it might mean in the coronavirus pandemic era.

During a virtual debate via the teleconferencing app Zoom, hosted by the Windham County Democratic Party, Holcombe, Zuckerman and Bennington attorney Pat Winburn debated issues of health care, economic development and the job Gov. Phil Scott is doing, particularly during the current coronavirus crisis.

The debate was the first of the 2020 primary season; voting is slated for August 11. About 200 people listened in to the debate via Zoom, and more on Facebook.

The sharpest exchange of the 90-minute debate, which was hosted by John Hagen, chairman of the county committee, was on vaccination, and whether Zuckerman would endorse requiring a vaccine for all children entering Vermont schools, and the implications for the so-called "herd immunity" that health officials are pinning their hopes on.

Zuckerman said his goal as governor would be to "put the safety of Vermonters first," while Holcombe said that Zuckerman had long disputed the science behind vaccines.

Zuckerman in turn accused Holcombe, the former state education secretary under Gov. Peter Shumlin and then Scott, of deliberately misrepresenting his stand on vaccines, which in 2015 was a hot political topic in the Statehouse.

Zuckerman grew testy with Holcombe's criticism of his stand on vaccines, saying that while he voted against an amendment that would have repealed the philosophical exemption, he ultimately voted in favor of the vaccine bill that required all Vermont children entering school to be vaccinated, with exceptions based on medical or religious grounds. He said his own daughter was vaccinated. He said that Holcombe was making "false and incomplete" statements about his record on vaccines.

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"I voted for the bill in the end," he said.

Vaccines, of course, are back on the front political burner because of the coronavirus, and the belief that life won't return to normal until there is an effective vaccine for the new virus.

Zuckerman said that what is just as important is people's ability to afford the vaccine, which he said the government should make free to anyone who wants it. Vaccines, he said, "should be accessible and free."

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Holcombe said in her work with medically compromised children (she is a former teacher and principal), she learned the necessity of vaccination, and she pushed Zuckerman repeatedly on the issue during the first 30 minutes of the debate.

Fighting COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, should be tackled through education, she said, with the state college system educating enough nurses and other health care workers for Vermont so that the more expensive 'traveling nurses' aren't necessary in Vermont's hospital network.

Aside from the testy exchange over vaccines, it was a polite debate, with Holcombe, who has never held elective office before, and Zuckerman, who has been lieutenant governor for the past four years, discussing issues they mostly agreed on with Winburn.

All three candidates called for universal "affordable" health care.

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Winburn, not wading into the recent vaccine exchange, said he believes in "health care for all" and he said his family, including his wife and daughter, both had serious medical conditions in the past, including in the case of his wife, Stage 4 lung cancer. She survived, he said, because of the quality of care she received.

But Winburn said that as someone who lived through the polio scare and vaccine, he supports vaccines.

On Act 46, a controversial school consolidate bill, Winburn said he believes the state "should hit the pause button."

Both Holcombe, as education secretary, and Zuckerman, as a state senator from Chittenden County, supported the bill, which is not popular in Windham County due to the many forced mergers.

Zuckerman said the provision in the bill to allow alternative structures in the face of forced mergers, has not worked well, as only the town of Stowe "got an out" from a forced merger, while other towns did not.

"I don't know why," he said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.


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