Amid hospitalization spike, Lamont considering vaccine mandate for state employees

Gov. Ned Lamont says he willl consider a vaccine mandate for state employees (PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Gov. Ned Lamont says he willl consider a vaccine mandate for state employees (PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

PATRICK T. FALLON /AFP / TNS

As the COVID-19 numbers continued to tick upward, Gov. Ned Lamont said Monday he is contemplating a vaccine mandate for state employees, the latest sign the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant might force a return to some pandemic-related restrictions.

Lamont favors voluntary measures as some governors order new restrictions. He has not ordered any new mask requirements for state residents but he said Monday the vaccination rule in state agencies is a very real possibility.

“There are no plans for that as yet, but we are looking into it,” Lamont said after a news conference in Groton where he was asked whether state workers would be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The governor’s comments came hours before the state reported 148 total patients hospitalized due to COVID-19 — an increase of 32 people over Friday and the largest number since mid-May. It was also the largest change in hospitalizations over a weekend period since late March.

The state also reported that 2.86 percent of all tests have come back positive over the last seven days — the highest level in more than three months.

The Connecticut Department of Public Health is now strongly recommending residents wear masks indoors in public places regardless of vaccination status. The new guidance follows updated recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that masks should be worn indoors in places of substantial or high community transmission — including most of Connecticut.

In recent weeks, reporters have repeatedly asked Lamont whether the state will change course amid rising cases and hospitalizations and a waning vaccine campaign. While the governor has expressed concern over the delta variant, he has not yet called for new measures to limit the spread but has indicated that’s a possibility.

The governor reiterated Monday that he would consider a broad mask mandate for residents, as he has said almost every day he was in the state over the last two weeks. But he continues to say restaurants and other businesses are free to impose any distancing and mask requirements that they choose.

“I think we’re going to keep going with that process a little longer unless the world changes under our feet,” the governor said.

No union talks yet

Connecticut and the other New England states are generally the lowest in the nation in the rate of positive tests. The nation is at about 8 percent and rising, with some states spiking much higher.

“What you’re seeing around the state of Connecticut is people generally using really good common sense, doing the right thing,” Lamont said.

The governor said in informal discussions with state employee union leaders about a statewide vaccine policy, there’s been “broad agreement” between the two sides about the need to keep workers and the people they come into contact with safe.

Certain groups of state employees still have low vaccination rates, including some who are “very forward facing” such as those who care for people with special needs and correction department staff, the governor said. That could lead to masking or vaccine requirements or routine testing for state workers, though Lamont did not say directly whether the unions seemed amenable to any specific rules.

“There are different variables that we’re going to figure out in the next week or two,” Lamont said.

Asked whether the State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition, which represents about 46,000 state employees, would support a mask mandate for state workers, Lamont said “I think they’d certainly be open to the discussion.”

In a written statement Monday, SEBAC said, while not in direct discussions with the Lamont administration, “we look forward to carefully considering any proposal that is designed to enhance the safety of both state workers and the public they serve while ensuring a fair and effective system.”

Later Monday, Lamont announced his administration had reached an agreement with SEBAC on a revised telework policy. Last spring, during the height of the pandemic, the governor ordered all state employees whose job enabled them to work from home to do so. On May 13, he emailed state workers to say most had to return to work in-person.

The revised policy enables state employees who were working from home prior to Lamont’s May 13 email to continue to do so until Oct. 2. After that, they can request to work from home for part or all of their scheduled hours.

Hazardous duty employees, or “those whose consistent presence at the work site or in the field is now required because of the reopening of in-person operations” do not have the option of working from home, per the agreement.

Masks in schools?

The governor is also soon expected to put out guidance for public schools on the upcoming school year, including whether students will be required to wear masks. Lamont pointed to “strong guidance” from the CDC and the state DPH that “everybody in those schools are better off wearing a mask.”

“From there, how that is enforced, we’ll figure that out over a period of time,” the governor said, adding he hopes to provide a “couple of weeks’ notice.”

As for travel restrictions, Lamont reiterated that residents should use common sense.

“It’s better if people stay closer to home,” the governor said. “Skip Florida for now.”

Lamont continues to push higher vaccination rates, particularly among younger demographics, as the best way to defeat the delta variant.

Public health officials say the majority of those currently getting sick, going to the hospital and dying have not been vaccinated.

“This still remains, in terms of severity, a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Dr. Ulysses Wu, system director of infectious disease at Hartford HealthCare, said Monday during a virtual press briefing.

“The vaccine is doing its job. We all thought that the purpose of the vaccine was to completely stamp out and prevent disease but it’s main goal was to take a deadly disease and turn it into the common cold, and it seems to be doing a good job for those who are vaccinated.”

While Lamont continues to mull whether mandates are necessary here, officials in other places are moving forward with masking, testing and vaccine requirements for government workers and others.

On Monday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced all public transit and airport employees will be required to get immunized or submit to weekly testing. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio previously announced that requirement for city workers, which is expected to go into effect in mid-September.

Some Connecticut municipalities have also instituted their own precautions. New London and Norwalk, for example, have reinstated mask mandates at city owned properties. New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker is reportedly exploring the idea of requiring city workers to be inoculated.

The Joint Committee on Legislative Management announced in an email Monday that anyone entering the Capitol must wear masks or other appropriate face coverings when in common areas, including fully vaccinated individuals. The new mask protocol is “based on the increased Covid positivity rates,” the email said.

julia.bergman@hearstmediact.com