Lamont resists new mandates
Some experts say COVID surge warrants adding requirements
Amid rising COVID case rates and a sharp increase in hospitalizations, Gov. Ned Lamont said Monday he will not institute any new mandates.
But some public health experts believe that requiring booster shots or masks might help stem the rising tide of cases as the omicron variant gains traction in the state.
“I still believe in mandates. I still believe they can work as long as education accompanies that mandate,” said Ridgefield resident Arthur Caplan, a bioethics professor at New York University Langone Medical Center. “With omicron running amok and boosters being the key to the response, it would make a lot of sense to mandate so we don’t overwhelm our health care system.”
There were 101 more COVIDrelated hospitalizations over the weekend, increasing the statewide total to 837 — the most since Feb. 3. Since Friday, 6,209 new COVID infections were discovered among 90,689 tests for a 6.85 percent positivity rate.
The latest rise in COVID-19 metrics comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the omicron variant, first discovered last month in South Africa, has become the dominant strain in the United States. Researchers believe it will overtake the delta variant in Connecticut by the end of the month.
“We have gone from the least infected state in the country to maybe the 13th,” Lamont said. “I think you should realize unlike a year ago or two years ago, we are in a much better position because we know how to defend ourselves, we know that masking works, we know that vaccines work, we know that boost- ers work.”
Lamont stressed that the patients who are filling up hospital beds are not vaccinated, saying there was “a disconnect between infections and hospitalizations.”
The governor on Monday reiterated his stance to avoid reinstating a statewide mask mandate. He said the requirement would be "an added layer of protection" only if people comply and it can be enforced.
"I'm sort of a UConn fan these days I was looking at the basketball game at the XL [Center in Hartford] the other day and you know, you're supposed to wear a mask there,” Lamont said. “Not everyone was wearing a mask, to put it mildly. So I can pass a lot of laws and mandates and restrictions, but they're only effective when people follow it. So that's why I like to give that local discretion. They know their populations the best, and they're the ones responsible for enforcing it."
Neighboring states have recently reinstated mandates and restrictions in response to omicron’s spread. In Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu announced Monday that restaurant patrons would be required to show proof of vaccination before dining indoors.
Boston will require adults to show proof of at least one vaccine dose as of Jan. 15, and a second dose a month later. Children ages 5 to 11 will be subject to the same mandate beginning March 1.
Other Massachusetts communities are expected to follow suit.
New York City has had a similar policy for months, and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul earlier this month announced that all offices, restaurants, shops and other businesses in the state must require staff and customers to either show proof of vaccination or wear masks.
“New York, New Jersey are ground zero for omicron right now,” Lamont said. “I like to do things that work.”
Some individual communities in Connecticut have instituted mask mandates — Trumbull, for example — and many companies have required employees to be vaccinated.
“We know that mandates work. I am certain our current hospital employees have higher vaccination rates because of our mandate,” said Scott Roberts, associate medical director for infection prevention at Yale New Haven Health. “It's another layer and tool added to our public health defense against this current rising wave of omicron.”
“I'm definitely in support of a mask mandate in the state of Connecticut,” he said. “We're approaching the highest levels we've ever recorded in the state with a variant that we don't know much about, but we do know is two to three times as contagious as the delta variant.”
Hartford HealthCare infectious disease specialist Ulysses Wu said Lamont “also has to recognize the autonomy of each of the towns.”
“I’m sure there are town mayors saying, ‘I hope the governor does this.’ They want to pass the buck up the food chain,” he said. “The mandate has become such a political hot-button topic, there are some people who don’t want to touch it with a 10-foot pole.”
Caplan said “politics” has gotten in the way of restrictions and mandates, both within the state and at a federal level.
“The politics on masks is asking restaurants, bars, gyms to enforce them and they hate that,” he said. “They don't want to be seen as the mask police.”
Lamont on Monday announced a digital vaccination ID system, offering proof of vaccination on a smartphone, similar to New York’s Excelsior Pass. But Lamont spokesperson Max Reiss said Connecticut’s program would not come with additional mandates.
“Restrictions only work with rules you can enforce. We are at a point in the pandemic when we know best defense is to vaccinate and booster, and the Moderna and Pfizer boosters are proven to have a positive effect against the omicron variant,” he said. “We know what is effective against severe illness and death and the governor continues to push vaccines and therapies as hard as we can.”
Andy Slavitt, the former White House senior advisor for COVID response, said on Twitter that electoral politics is playing a role: “In an election year, too many governors are too slow to take tough policy responses. December and January are a time for proactive and unpopular actions.”
Caplan said he believes mask requirements and vaccine mandates might be possible, but enforced lockdowns were no longer a feasible option.
“We’re not going to lock down and we’re not going to quarantine. It’s clear that that’s politically untenable at this point,” he said. “I can’t see the governor announcing we’re back to quarantine. I can’t imagine it. I think we take the deaths.”
Wu does not believe statewide mandates would make a significant difference, pointing out how people have decided what rules they are comfortable following.
“Ideologically, people have kind of decided what they’re going to do,” he said. “The majority of the people who are already masking would of course want a mask mandate. It’s really fallen along ideological lines at this point.”
Omicron doesn’t change that assessment for Wu.
“Omicron is no different from delta in terms of what we should be doing,” Wu said. “We should have been washing our hands the whole entire time.”
There may come a time, Wu said, when the governor has no choice, when public health concerns outweigh political concerns. But the state has not yet reached that point, he said.
“Once he pulls that, there’s not much more that he’s going to be able to do beyond that,” Wu said. “COVID doesn't care about the politics, but I understand the position that he’s in.”
In the absence of mandates, taking measures to protect oneself and the community from COVID is a matter of personal responsibility, Wu said.
“People have just stopped worrying about COVID,” he said. “For me, it’s a way of life at this point. I will continue to trudge on and continue to fight it. I don’t necessarily worry about it any more because it’s here to stay.”