Connecticut is expanding testing for COVID-19 in response to rising infections and sharply higher demand as families gather for the holidays, but no new restrictions or mandates are contemplated, Gov. Ned Lamont said Monday.
Hospitalizations for COVID increased by 101 to 837 over the weekend, and 90,689 tests were reported — a one-third jump that appears to reflect both a surge in new infections and fears about spreading the virus. About 7% found infections.
“It’s a little frustrating, I’ve got to admit,” Lamont said in a televised briefing. “We were the most-vaccinated, least-infected state in the country going back a couple of months. What happened?”
What has happened is the arrival of the omicron variant — which appears to be more transmissible, but less virulent than previous variants — and the seasonal spread of airborne viruses that come with colder weather and indoor activities.
Connecticut now ranks 13th among the states in new infections, he said.
The governor said hospitals are not overwhelmed by COVID, but his commissioner of public health, Dr. Manisha Juthani, said hospitals are challenged by staffing fatigue, turnover and pent-up demand from patients who put off treatment during the pandemic. The state is waiving certain licensing deadlines to facilitate hiring.
“We have people who’ve been sitting on the sidelines with medical and surgical conditions that need to have them treated,” Juthani said. “We have a behavioral health crisis that’s going on, and we are in the middle of a COVID pandemic. We are going to be watching this very closely.”
Hospitalizations for the disease, as well as fatalities, still are significantly lower than a year ago, Lamont noted.
“We’re in a much better position, because we know how to defend ourselves, and we know what works. We know the masking works. We know that vaccinations work. We know that boosters work,” Lamont said.
While the governor promoted the efficacy of wearing masks indoors, Lamont said he will not mandate their use, leaving the question of mandates to local municipalities and stores, theaters and other public venues.
“You can pass laws, you can have mandates, but what’s really important is people understand themselves how important it is to do the right thing,” Lamont said. “So I’m not positive yet another mandate will make a big difference there, unless circumstances radically change.”
Lamont publicized the availability of a digital proof-of-vaccination card, stressing it is a digital version of the paper cards and not the harbinger of a mandate on proof to enter restaurants, stores or elsewhere.
Unlike in New York City, where the mayor has ordered proof of vaccination for entrance to restaurants, gyms, museums, Broadway theaters and other indoor spaces, municipal officials in Connecticut do not have that authority.
Josh Geballe, the governor’s chief operating officer, said municipalities can require proof of vaccination from their employees or as a condition of entrance to their buildings but not to stores or other private venues.
Lamont signed an executive order granting a local option for mask mandates, but he was uncertain about a similar option for proof of vaccination.
“I don’t have a position on that, as yet,” Lamont said. “Instinctively, I like to give local authority to mayors and first selectmen to make up their minds.”
Restaurants generally do not ask for proof of vaccination in Connecticut, but many theaters and some gyms do.
The governor and Juthani each encouraged residents to get tested before hosting family gatherings or large indoor events, advice likely to further drive up demand.
Lamont said testing is available at 400 sites in Connecticut, and the state is expanding hours at 23 state-sponsored sites and adding seven new sites. Hospitals also are increasing testing, he said.
The governor also has ordered a two-week pause on the testing of state employees who have opted for weekly testing instead of vaccinations.
Sema4, which recently informed the state it will cease COVID testing, will continue the testing through January, Lamont said.
Lamont, who is fully vaccinated, gets near-daily tests for COVID as a personal safeguard and a precaution against spread. Last week, he addressed the Connecticut Restaurant Association’s dinner in a ballroom packed with 1,100 people.
“I just feel like in this environment, I gotta get around, I got to see people,” Lamont said earlier Monday. “And we now have the capability to keep ourselves relatively safe. And so let’s learn to live with it.”
At his televised briefing, Lamont did not discourage going to Christmas services.
“If you’re going to a church service, don’t test after the service — test before the service,” Lamont said. “And that way you know that everybody around you will be safe.”
Juthani articulated a flexible criteria at the briefing for testing when you are asymptomatic and are not facing a requirement, such as a weekly test imposed on students or more frequently on athletes by many colleges.
Vaccination and a booster are the best protection, she said.
“Doing the test before you gather is one more thing you can do, particularly because we are in a phase where we have a lot of spread with, likely, omicron overtaking delta right now and being very infectious,” Juthani said. “I think it is a reasonable thing to do.”