Republican Bob Stefanowski aligned himself Thursday with the Black public health commissioner whom Gov. Ned Lamont fired early in the COVID-19 pandemic and a current state employee whose discrimination claims have been discredited by a federal judge.
With five days until the election, Stefanowski returned to two disparate lines of attack tried months ago, condemning Lamont’s response to COVID-19 and suggesting the governor’s administration is indifferent to racial discrimination.
“They’re both legitimate issues,” Stefanowski said.
Stefanowski accused Lamont of forcing nursing homes to accept COVID-positive patients discharged by crowded hospitals, a claim contradicted by the head of the trade association representing long-term care facilities in Connecticut.
But his ostensible focus on COVID deaths was complicated by two guests who shared the microphone, each more intent on talking about their racially tinged labor grievances than public health policy and performance.
One was Renee Coleman-Mitchell, who is suing the state over her dismissal after little more than a year as commissioner of public health. She repeated her claim that she was fired due to her race, gender and age, not because the governor had lost confidence in her leadership at a pivotal juncture.
Stefanowski also introduced Luis Ortiz, who repeatedly has confronted the governor with video recorders at public events, challenging him over allegations of racism at the state Department of Transportation. Ortiz has twice lost in federal court over claims of discrimination and retaliation.
If the goal was to get voters to reassess Lamont’s generally praised management of the pandemic five days before the election, Stefanowski found himself competing with the agendas of Coleman-Mitchell and Ortiz.
“I became disillusioned and disappointed when I experienced racial discrimination, resulting in unwarranted oppression that I endured from the intentional efforts of the governor and his administration to humiliate, erase, discredit and cruel attempts to ruin my 30-plus-year, blemish-free reputation and contributions to public health,” Coleman-Mitchell said.
Stefanowski introduced Ortiz as evidence of Lamont’s insensitivity to discrimination, not mentioning that Ortiz’s claims were twice dismissed in federal court or his habit of chasing after Lamont at public events.
Ortiz, who still is employed by the DOT, said he began confronting the governor after being ignored by his union and the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.
“After years of being ignored, I started following him and asking him to answer why he has ignored all of us, his registered voters, the minorities that work in his state,” Ortiz said. “And he has no comment. I’ve been labeled as a troublemaker, because I’m fighting for the rights of minorities.”
His commentary was interrupted by a hip-hop ringtone that he struggled to silence. Stefanowski reached out to take his phone, but Ortiz declined.
U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey A. Meyer ruled in February that Ortiz presented no evidence that a paid suspension and denial of a pay raise was retaliation for his first lawsuit. Instead, the judge noted Ortiz had been disciplined three times prior to his first lawsuit, and the suspension was due to inappropriate notes directed at a supervisor.
When one of his notes was removed from a locker room, Meyer wrote in his decision granting summary judgment to the state, Ortiz posted another one, this time with a homophobic insult: “Whoever took down ‘my’ paper your mother is a man and your dad loves that about him. Fake News.”
Coleman-Mitchell, not Stefanowski, invited Ortiz to the press conference, said Sarah Clark, a Stefanowski spokeswoman. But Stefanowski gestured for him to speak, though he eventually walked away as Ortiz complained that his union was not backing him and the press was asking him no questions.
The early days of the pandemic
The original goal for the press conference was to challenge Lamont’s insistence during their debate Wednesday night that Stefanowski was wrong in asserting that Lamont had carelessly sent COVID-positive patients to nursing homes after their discharge by overwhelmed acute-care hospitals.
“We need to protect our most vulnerable. Seventy to 80% of the deaths from COVID were people aged over 65. And just like Gov. Cuomo did in New York, Gov. Lamont put infected COVID patients coming out of hospitals into nursing homes,” Stefanowski said at the debate.
“First of all, let’s set the record straight,” Lamont responded. “Nobody put infected COVID patients back in with the general population in nursing homes. That’s absolutely false. Fortunately, we had empty nursing homes. We were able to put them there, and we had wings that were closed down. We were able to do that. Please fact check these things, so I don’t have to be the only one doing the fact checking.”
Stefanowski doubled down Thursday.
“It happened. There was no rulebook for COVID, I get it. It was a once in, hopefully, once in history [event], I get it. But the governor needs to step up and say he made a mistake,” Stefanowski said. “The people who lost loved ones deserve it. And he’s got to stop lying about it.”
Coleman-Mitchell offered no clear answer to a basic question of whether Lamont, or even the state, actually put COVID patients in nursing homes, much less the more complicated question of what was the best practice in the earliest and evolving weeks of a pandemic that threatened to overwhelm hospitals in Connecticut.
“As I continually state, I was removed from the process very early on. That means my authority was taken and given to the government. Decision making was taken from me as well,” Coleman-Mitchell said.
Matthew V. Barrett, the chief executive officer of the association that represents nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, said the state did not force the patients, nor would it have been bad practice, if they were appropriately isolated.
“There was never a mandate. It was never the case that nursing homes were required to accept COVID-positive patients for residents,” Barrett said.
At the request of the state, at least four shuttered nursing homes were reopened as recovery centers for patients who no longer needed acute hospital care but were too ill to go home.
Nursing homes were hampered in the early weeks of the pandemic by a shortage of masks and other protective gear, the lack of testing that could detect the novel virus, and the mistaken, if widely held, belief that transmission was not possible from people who were asymptomatic, Barrett said.
“Identifying those who are positive, those who were positive, and then separating them or isolating or quarantining strategies, that was not present early on in the pandemic,” Barrett said.
Barrett said the state was aggressive in restricting visitations at nursing homes and in reserving the first batch of COVID vaccines for staff and residents at long-term care facilities and hospitals. Coleman-Mitchell said she recommended the ban on visitors.
Using emergency powers, Lamont ordered that nursing home staff be vaccinated, an order that Stefanowski, who generally opposes COVID vaccine mandates, conceded was reasonable.
The death toll in nursing homes undeniably was horrific, especially in the early months.
By July 30, 2020, less than five months after the first case was detected in Connecticut, about 72% of the state’s 4,432 total deaths from COVID-19 were people in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. As of Thursday, the statewide death toll attributed to COVID was 11,478.
Democrats were ready at the press conference with a rebuttal from Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, a physician specializing in pulmonology who has a master’s degree in public health. He made no effort to minimize the losses.
“Every single person who has died is an important individual to us as a state of Connecticut and to their family members,” Anwar said. “And it’s coming from a place of pain from my end as well, because I lost two brothers to COVID during the pandemic.”
Anwar said discharging patients to nursing homes was best practice at the time, though he acknowledged that a lack of masks and other PPE, as well as the initial shortage of testing and absence of vaccines, made spread hard to contain once the virus had reached a nursing home.
Hospitals were teetering at the time, he said.
“So as soon as the patient would improve, those patients had to be transferred to COVID recovery facilities. That is common sense. That is what was recommended, and that is what was done,” Anwar said, “And if you kept everybody in the same facility, there was no way to be able to take care of the acute needs.”
Stefanowski said he would have planned better and had recovery facilities ready earlier.
The Lamont administration commissioned a critique by Mathematica, a research consulting firm, that first summer that concluded planning and coordination could have been better.
“Long-term care facilities were not recognized as critical health care assets in the state’s emergency preparedness plans, nor were long-term care facilities representatives at the table at the beginning of the outbreak,” wrote the authors of the 157-page analysis.
Coleman-Mitchell complained that the governor’s chief operating officer at the time, Josh Geballe, was designated as the overall coordinator of the state’s response and that she was sidelined while the governor and Geballe relied on the state epidemiologist and others at DPH for guidance.
Dr. Deidre Gifford, the commissioner of social services, temporarily added DPH to her portfolio after Coleman-Mitchell’s dismissal. Gifford is a physician who has a master’s of public health degree in epidemiology.
A permanent successor was nominated in July 2021: Dr. Manisha Juthani, a physician of infectious diseases at the Yale School of Medicine.
Stefanowski was asked if a governor should have the authority to remove commissioners at their discretion, whether under the rubric of losing faith in them or for a more specific reason.
“There have to be reasons,” he said. “They can’t just be you wake up some morning and you don’t like them. If there’s legitimate reasons. Absolutely. You have to hold people accountable.”