In ordering COVID-19 vaccinations for state employees and teachers, Gov. Ned Lamont offered Connecticut a rueful reminder Thursday of the pandemic’s persistence, coupled with a message of reassurance.
Lamont said the highly contagious delta variant convinced him to order that all state employees, teachers and staff in K-12 schools and day care be vaccinated by Sept. 27, expanding on a previous requirement for nursing homes.
“This is how we break the back of COVID,” Lamont said.
State employee unions acknowledged the governor’s authority to issue the order, which came with an opt-out provision for weekly tests in lieu of inoculations. There is no opt-out for nursing homes.
Legislative leaders promised support, crucial given that Lamont’s emergency powers otherwise expire past Sept. 30.
Hospitalizations for the virus, a key metric for Lamont, stood at 344 on Thursday, well within the capacity of Connecticut hospitals. But that is nearly a sevenfold increase from two months ago, when the governor said the pandemic seemed to be in its final innings.
“Delta’s thrown us a curve, we have some extra innings to go through,” Lamont said. “But before you say, ‘Oh my god, here we go again,’ I want you to know we are in so much better position as a state and as a country today than we were during that fall flare up and where we were 14, 16 months ago.”
The biggest difference is that 74% of residents age 12 and older are fully vaccinated in Connecticut, the second-highest rate in the U.S. Ninety-seven percent of those 65 and older have had at least their first shot.
The state reported 23 COVID deaths over the past week, more than double the previous week. There were 10 fatalities over the past two weeks at nursing homes, which were especially hard hit in the first months of the pandemic.
At Lamont’s briefing, which was carried on all but one network affiliate, the administration showed a national COVID hotspot map, where the lightly vaccinated south was a bright red. Lamont said the map was easy to read.
“All you’ve got to know is, the darker the red, the worse it is,” Lamont said. “Sadly, in many cases, they have hospitals in different regions who are overwhelmed or close to being overwhelmed. We’re not gonna let that happen in Connecticut, and that is not happening in Connecticut.”
The state is experiencing its fourth surge in hospitalizations since the virus arrived in March 2020, each less intense than the previous one. The first reached 2,000, prompting the state to prepare temporary wards. The second came in the fall of 2020, topping 1,100. Hospitalizations fell below 500 in March 2021, rebounded again, then flattened in June.
House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said Lamont’s order and the prospect of continuing his emergency powers would have drawn significant opposition in June, but not today.
“We’re going to caucus next week, but I think we feel the governor made the right decision and, you know, there’s no reason why legislative employees or legislators shouldn’t be held to the same standard,” Ritter said.
In addition to the vaccination order, Lamont has announced a continuation of the statewide mandate on masks for children in K-12 schools and day care. No vaccine is available for children under 12.
Leaders of the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate quickly offered support for the governor’s order, while the GOP minority expressed concerns — but not opposition.
“We fear the governor may have opened a can of worms by issuing this executive order that will surely trigger many immediately unanswerable questions from workers and entities impacted by it— from how much it will cost employees who instead choose weekly testing to the scope of disciplinary action faced by those who fail to comply with this mandate altogether,” Rep. Vincent J. Candelora of North Branford and Sen. Kevin Kelly of Stratford, the minority leaders, said in a joint statement.
In an interview, Candelora said he would press the Lamont administration for a conversation about the mask requirement in pre-schools. He said he feared that masks might be hindering development of speech.
“From a social and developmental perspective, from an early childhood perspective, I am concerned,” Candelora said. “And I hope that we will have a conversation of the benefits of having a two-year-old or a three-year-old wearing a mask.”
The State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition said it acknowledged employer rights to mandate vaccinations and that the Lamont administration acknowledged its responsibility to negotiate details.
Administration officials said the right to work remotely, a point of contention weeks ago, is not on the table.
The death toll in Connecticut is 8,330 since the start of the pandemic. The data released Thursday offered no details about whether the 10 nursing home deaths involved comorbidities, just that a patient died of COVID-related complications.
No nursing home staff have died since July, when the delta variant became dominant in the state. The delta variant is considered to be considerably more transmissible than the original strain of the virus.
COVID case numbers among nursing home staff and residents have increased sharply over the course of the past few weeks. The state reported 118 resident COVID cases and 97 staff COVID cases between Aug. 4 and Aug. 17. For context, Connecticut reported just six resident cases and 19 staff cases between July 7 and July 20.
The Lutheran Home of Southbury, The Pines at Bristol, Seabury Health Center in Bloomfield, Maple View Health and Rehabilitation Center in Rocky Hill and Maefair Health Center in Trumbull all reported 10 or more cases of COVID among residents in the first two weeks of August.
The Department of Public Health scaled back its reporting of COVID numbers in nursing homes last month, releasing updates now every two weeks instead of each week. “If conditions warrant, the Connecticut Department of Public Health will produce more frequent reports,” a DPH statement read.
In an effort to reduce transmission in nursing homes, the state announced a vaccine mandate for nursing home staff last week. Data released Thursday show that while the average vaccination rate among employees remains high at 74%, individual nursing homes are posting vaccination rates that range from 37% to 100%. Staff have until Sept. 7 to show evidence of at least one dose or their employers will have to pay a $20,000 penalty daily.
Nursing home residents in the state report a higher average vaccination rate of 92%, and individual nursing homes show resident vaccination coverage rates between 67-100%. Nursing home residents will be first in line for booster shots as they are made available.