A sign that a protestor holds is seen at the Connecticut State Capitol. Hundreds gathered mostly without wearing masks to protest against the bill that would repeal Connecticut's religious exemption from mandatory school vaccinations. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org
The House GOP conservative caucus largely went maskless. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Conservative Republicans in the state House of Representatives provided a forum Wednesday for people who question the safety of COVID-19 vaccines and oppose workplace mandates for either inoculations or weekly testing.

Billed as an inquiry on the constitutionality and consequences of vaccine mandates, the hearing called by the House GOP’s conservative caucus exposed a deep vein of distrust in science, medicine, the media and government. 

“It’s steam in a teapot,” warned Colleen Dabkowski, a yoga teacher and holistic life coach from Southington. “It’s gonna blow.”

The hearing, one of the first in 18 months in a state Capitol complex still only partially opened to the public, comes a week before the General Assembly is expected to approve an extension of Gov. Ned Lamont’s emergency pandemic powers.

In a letter to legislative leaders Wednesday, Lamont formally called a special session on his intention to extend through Feb. 15, 2022 the emergency initially declared March 10, 2020. The House will vote Monday, the Senate on Tuesday.

Extending the emergency is intended to maintain several executive orders, including a statewide mandate for wearing of masks in schools and a vaccination or testing order for educators, health-care workers and state employees.

“We’re here to hear from those people that are impacted by those orders, hear their stories,” said Rep. Mike France, R-Ledyard, the leader of the conservative caucus.

The caucus includes two members who unsuccessfully sued to challenge the legality of the pandemic emergency, Reps. Craig Fishbein of Wallingford and Doug Dubitsky of Chaplin.

Like most of the caucus members, they did not wear masks at the hearing, despite a requirement for mask-wearing in public spaces inside the Capitol and Legislative Office Building.

 “I don’t come to the table here today being anti-vax or anti-mask,” Fishbein said. “I come pro-choice. One should have that choice in order to continue in their employment.”

In a news conference before the hearing, France and Fishbein said they considered all three COVID-19 vaccines to be experimental due to their availability through an emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration.

Fishbein referred to the vaccines as “an unapproved substance.”

On August 23, the FDA gave full approval to the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine for people 16 and older and continued its emergency use authorization for those 12 and older.

Technically, the full FDA authorization was a license applied to the production of the vaccine at certain facilities, even though the formulations are identical. The distinction has prompted claims, deemed misleading by fact checkers, that the vaccine wasn’t really approved.

No one from the Lamont administration testified, and it seemed unlikely it would get any defenders as the hearing reached its fifth hour.

One of the witnesses was Amy Bourdon of Cheshire, one of the protesters who disrupted a roundtable discussion last month in Cheshire about COVID safety protocols in the schools. She said the clinical trials were inadequate to inoculate the elderly, who are 90% vaccinated, or children.

“I have four children. I’m not putting them out there like rab rats,” Bourdon said. “It’s a farce. It’s a medical farce. I know why they want everyone to get the vaccine.”

She said the need for boosters argue against the efficacy of the vaccines and that by the time they are 18, children will require so many boosters they were will be like “heroin addicts.”

Dr. Manisha Juthani, the commissioner of public health, said in a statement that the track record of the safety and efficacy of the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are well established.

“The COVID-19 vaccines authorized in the United States continue to be remarkably effective in reducing risk of severe disease, hospitalization, and death, even against the widely circulating Delta variant,” she said. 

The vaccines do not offer a guarantee against infection, hospitalization or death, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows they greatly reduce all three.

“It is critical that unvaccinated and partially vaccinated people get their primary series of vaccines to further reduce the risk of COVID-19 and its more severe outcomes,” Juthani said. “Nearly all the cases of severe disease, hospitalization, and death continue to occur among those not yet vaccinated at all.”

But the witnesses at the hearing made clear they do not find assurances from public health officials convincing, not when alternative sources of news are available.

“There’s millions of people doing podcasts to get us the information we need. This is why we know what we know,” said Dabkowski, the yoga teacher and life coach. “Because the media is lying to us, and we know the media is lying to us.”

Connecticut has one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the U.S., with 68% fully vaccinated and 75% having received at last one shot. Lamont’s management of the pandemic gets high marks in polling.

Lamont’s vaccination orders impose a deadline of Sept. 27 for state employees, workers in nursing homes and other health care settings, and school and child care employees to get vaccinated or be tested weekly.

President Joe Biden has imposed a broader mandate by ordering the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue emergency regulations requiring vaccinations at companies with more than 100 employees.

Ashley Madore, a bus driver in Bristol, said she is one of 25 drivers in Bristol opposed to the vaccination mandate for people who work in education. Social distancing guidelines were observed at the hearing. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

The first witness Wednesday was Ashley Madore, who told lawmakers she is one of 25 bus drivers in Bristol opposed to the vaccination or testing mandate. About half of them sat behind her.

Madore said the drivers may be facing discipline for take a day off, leaving the bus company scrambling for substitutes. She directed her comments to someone not in attendance: the governor.

“We the people are tired of your overreach, your hunger for control, your disregard for basic, god-given rights afforded to us, not by you, but by God almighty,” she said. “And you have no right to stand between us and God’s word.”

Caucus members say they are concerned that testing is too burdensome, and Dubitsky quizzed her on cost and convenience.

Madore said the bus company has directed drivers to free testing sites and it provides them for one hour’s pay while they get tested.

But at least three witnesses said they feared the testing.

“I don’t want to swab up my nose. I don’t know what’s in it. I’m afraid of it. I’m not happy about that. Who benefits from testing? Not me. The tests don’t work,” said Kathleen Lopez, a substitute teacher.

Two witnesses repeated claims the swabs might cause cancer because they are sterilized with ethylene oxide, a gas commonly used to sterilize medical equipment, as well as spices and cosmetics. Medical officials say the gas leaves trace amounts and pose no threat.

Facebook posts claimed that the gas could change a person’s DNA, which is false.

Liza Blanchette, a nurse at Hartford HealthCare, said hospitals are starting to require unvaccinated staff to wear tags identifying them as unvaccinated.

“This violates our civil rights. It violate the Constitution,” Blanchette said. “I find it appalling.”

Tyra Scarpellino, a nurse who says she is seeking licensing in Florida, said no one should be ostracized for refusing a vaccine. 

She complained bitterly about what she described as the failure of the nursing and hospital associations to stand up for health care workers now — or earlier in the pandemic, when they lacked personal protective equipment.

“They’re all in bed with Ned Lamont,” she said.

Insults of the governor, including one teacher’s comparison of him to Hitler, went unrebuked. She was thanked for her testimony.

Others said they wished to lower the temperature of the public discourse over COVID.

Brooke Cheney of Harwinton urged for less certainty on both sides

She invoked thalidomide, a tranquilizer prescribed for pregnant woman that caused birth defects, then mentioned that a small number of people have been reported to survive falls from airplanes without a parachute.

“The point is science is never 100% correct,” she said. “Nothing is 100% unsafe.”

Dubitsky was sympathetic.

“Once you get that needle, there is no taking it back,” Dubitsky said.

Dubitsky warned Susan Zabohonski, who has organized opposition on Facebook, to have alternative means of communicating — a reference to the crackdown by Facebook and other social media sites on misinformation regarding COVID-19.

“There are a number of social media outlets out there who are unfriendly to your cause, and they can shut you down in a second,” Dubitsky said.

“Yep, we have alternates. We have backups,” she replied. “We have email lists. We have a huge email list so if that happens, we’re still able to reach people.”

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.