Gov. Ned Lamont...At right is Mayor Justin Elicker. At left, in a blue shirt is .... MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG
Gov. Ned Lamont’s message to the young and unvaccinated: “It’s about the team. It’s not just about you.” At right is Mayor Justin Elicker. Behind the governor in the blue shirt is Glen Lungarini, the executive director of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG
Gov. Ned Lamont’s message to the young and unvaccinated: “It’s about the team. It’s not just about you.” At right is Mayor Justin Elicker. Behind the governor in the blue shirt is Glen Lungarini, the executive director of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

NEW HAVEN — As California and New York City moved Monday towards mandating vaccinations to quell a surge in COVID-19 cases, Gov. Ned Lamont worked with high school coaches to coax athletes to voluntarily improve lagging vaccination rates among the young.

“Nobody wants mandates. I know how tired everybody is. And we don’t have to get into that conversation if people just go get vaccinated,” said Lamont, joined at a free vaccination clinic on the city’s historic green by coaches, health officials and its mayor, Justin Elicker.

Elicker, at least for a few moments, seemed ready to go alone on the possibility of mandating COVID-19 vaccinations, tackling terrain that the governor and executive director of CIAC, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, had just studiously avoided.

“I don’t think the message that people should take away from here is that we shouldn’t be exploring mandates,” Elicker said. “Yale University is doing a mandate. Yale New Haven Hospital is doing a mandate. And other businesses out there, I think, should be exploring the option of doing a mandate as well.”

But Elicker was less certain when asked about whether he would try to impose a vaccination mandate on city employees or whether he had the authority to do so under collective bargaining.

The mayor’s caution generally is reflective of the stance taken by elected officials and others on mandates, preferring to offer incentives, ease of access and messaging from voices trusted by the demographically diverse ranks of the hesitant.

“There’s a lot of consequences to mandates and a lot of things to consider,” Elicker said. “You know, we’re talking about this in the city hall. We’re just in the exploratory phase right now, because there’s a lot of impact.”

But before the end of the business day, California and New York City announced plans to require their workers to be vaccinated or tested regularly for the virus, beginning in August in California after Labor Day in New York City. 

The news conference in New Haven was staged alongside a clinic operated by Griffin Health Care that will offer free vaccinations on the green daily, from noon to 6 p.m., at least through Aug. 30.

At 70%, Connecticut has one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the country, but rates have lagged among the young and communities of color — a risk to the unvaccinated and the wider community, given breakthrough infections of the vaccinated by the Delta variant.

Heather Aaron, the state’s deputy commissioner of public health, said Connecticut has recorded 900 COVID infections and 21 deaths among the vaccinated, though they remain rare. Information on those 21 deaths, including ages and other risk factors, was unavailable.

Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz said the efficacy of the vaccines are well-proven.

“We are seeing a pandemic of the unvaccinated in our state and in our country,” Bysiewicz said. “And here’s the thing: The people who have not been vaccinated are the people who are going to the hospital, who are getting sick and who are dying.”

Maritza Bond, the city’s director of public health, said as “a woman of color,” she was urging minority communities to overcome a historic mistrust of government health prescriptions and seek out trusted voices.

“This is not a joke. This variant is coming, and it’s coming for us,” Bond said. “I get it. I am on the pulse of the community. I get that you have mistrust, but I want to make sure that you are not misinformed. We have information available to you. We have made vaccines available to all of you. But we are having most of the cases among communities of color. We are having most of the deaths among communities of color.”

Reggie Lytle, the football coach of Hillhouse High School and president of a Pop Warner youth league in the city, said his best estimate is that half of his high school team is vaccinated, reflecting both attitudes of students and parents. He regularly urges his players to get inoculated, for their team, their community and themselves.

“I have concerns about bringing it home,” said Lytle, whose own children are 8 and 10, too young for any of the available COVID-19 vaccines.

Young people generally have milder cases, but they can spread the virus to people more vulnerable, and the unvaccinated population offers the virus greater opportunities to mutate and potentially become vaccine resistant.

Lamont noted that even mild infections have forced professional athletes into quarantine, including six New York Yankees who missed the recent series with rival Boston Red Sox.

“It’s about the team. It’s not just about you. And it’s not that you’re not on the field, it could be your entire team has to quarantine and what that means for the season,” Lamont said. “And that’s an analogy for the state of Connecticut. It’s not just about you.”

Glen Lungarini, the executive director of the CIAC, which sets standards for participation in high school sports, sidestepped repeated questions about mandates.

Ultimately, he indicated CIAC will rely on guidance from the state departments of Public Health and Education expressed confidence, or at least hope, that the softer path of social suasion and calls for responsibility to teams and communities will work.

“At this point, we’ll just continue to have those great conversations with our partners in DPH in the state Department of Ed, to take their lead, as well,” Lungarini said. “And, you know, we’re confident with the governor’s efforts here in our joint efforts that our kids will answer that call.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.