Lamont 'open' to CT schools requiring COVID vaccines for students

Students enter the first day of school at Stamford High School in Stamford, Conn. Monday, Aug. 30, 2021.

Students enter the first day of school at Stamford High School in Stamford, Conn. Monday, Aug. 30, 2021.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

As hundreds of COVID-19 cases have already been reported this year in Connecticut schools, Gov. Ned Lamont said Friday he would be “open” to the idea of local districts imposing vaccine mandates for students.

“I’m certainly open to school districts having that authority,” he said during an event in Darien, touring businesses affected by flooding.

Though the governor said a 65 percent vaccination rate among residents aged 12 to 18 means “we’re getting there voluntarily,” Lamont said, “At some point, that may not be good enough.”

The city of Los Angeles, home to the second-largest school district in the United States, announced Thursday that all eligible students will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Connecticut has announced a similar mandate for teachers, and Lamont said Friday if vaccination rates don’t increase among school-aged children, the state might need to step in.

“My hunch is the state will have to be working with the superintendents, but we’re not there yet,” he said.

Superintendents may not be able to institute vaccine mandates without the state’s approval, according to Department of Education spokeswoman Laura Stefon.

“Absent some legislative action or executive order, school districts cannot condition students’ attendance on receipt of the COVID-19 vaccine specifically,” she said.

Lamont did not say how the state would implement any sort of student vaccination requirement, whether by supporting a vaccine mandate bill in the General Assembly that would apply to all schools or by giving individual school systems the authority to require vaccines.

Lamont has made no move in either direction and is unlikely to do so by executive order, which could face legal challenges.

The governor’s comments came at a time of transition for coronavirus orders. Lamont’s emergency powers expire Sept. 30, and it’s still unclear whether the legislature will extend that authority.

The state’s data shows hundreds of COVID cases have already been reported at Connecticut public and private schools since reopening in recent weeks.

In the past week, 386 cases have been reported statewide among students and 97 cases were reported among staff. Of those, about 16 percent involved students or staff who were vaccinated, according to the data, which includes cases reported from Sept. 2 to Wednesday.

That is nearly twice the number of infections recorded last October, when the state began publishing COVID infections in schools. At the time, many schools were operating on a hybrid model with some remote learning. The state’s outdoor and indoor mask mandates were still in effect and more infectious variants of the disease were not yet predominant in Connecticut.

Despite the increase in cases, Connecticut health systems have not seen an increase in pediatric COVID hospitalizations.

“We have not seen a huge surge in pediatric admissions to date,” said Dr. Tom Balcezak, medical director at Yale New Haven Health, which runs hospitals in Greenwich, Bridgeport and New Haven.

Balcezak said there was “not a single individual in any of our hospitals under 20 (years old)” with COVID.

Hospitals in other states are seeing a boom of younger COVID patients, he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report Thursday, showing a five-fold increase overall in the number of people under the age of 17 hospitalized with COVID in 14 states — and Connecticut was among them.

Though the CDC report did not break down the number of pediatric COVID hospitalizations by state, Balcezak said Connecticut is not seeing the increase other states are experiencing.

“We have not seen an uptick in pediatric admissions,” he said, with the caveat: “I anticipate we may see that.”

The CDC’s report does indicate that vaccines are effective among school-aged children.

“Among adolescents aged 12 to 17 years, the only pediatric age group for whom a COVID-19 vaccine is currently approved, hospitalization rates were approximately 10 times higher in unvaccinated compared with fully vaccinated adolescents,” the CDC wrote.

More than 74 percent of Connecticut’s population is now at least partly vaccinated, according to CDC data, far higher than the national average, which sits a little under 63 percent.

But weekly vaccine administrations in Connecticut have remained far below their peak of more than 315,000 in early April. The state’s most recent week of data showed a little over 46,000 doses administered, a slight drop after weekly vaccinations had been mostly rising through mid-July and August.

On Friday, the state announced an additional 625 cases, with 2.73 percent of all COVID tests in the last 24 hours returning positive results.

The state also announced an additional 10 hospitalizations for a total of 364 COVID patients in Connecticut. The state said more than 72 percent of them are not fully vaccinated.

While 10 communities, including the towns of Canaan, Salisbury and Lyme, are now reporting more than 80 percent of residents have received at least a first dose, vaccination rates remain low in other parts of the state, with many reporting less than 60 percent of residents have received a shot. That includes the major cities of Bridgeport, Hartford and Waterbury, state data shows.

With vaccinations against COVID-19 still stalling in some areas of Connecticut, it’s unclear how President Joe Biden’s mandate that large businesses require their employees to be vaccinated or face weekly testing will affect the state.

The mandate, announced Thursday, would require businesses with more than 100 employees to have their workers inoculated or submit to weekly testing.

“We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin,” Biden warned the unvaccinated in his remarks. “And your refusal has cost all of us.”

But how much of an impact that mandate will have on Connecticut, where vaccination rates are relatively high, is unknown.

“Whenever there’s a medical mandate, there’s always pushback, right?” said Tuvana Rua, an associate professor of management at Quinnipiac University’s school of business.

In her view, the mandate is necessary, citing the delta variant surging around the country, “clusters” of cases related to schools reopening and increasing cases of COVID in children.

Given that children under the age of 12 can not yet receive the vaccine, “I think it is our responsibility to protect the next generation,” Rua added.