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Despite COVID uptick, Lamont administration resisting mask mandate

State officials say they have no immediate plans to reinstate an indoor mask mandate or impose other requirements that were prevalent during the first year of the pandemic.
State officials say they have no immediate plans to reinstate an indoor mask mandate or impose other requirements that were prevalent during the first year of the pandemic.

Despite an uptick in COVID-19 cases post-Thanksgiving and news of a new variant, Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration said Tuesday it has no immediate plans to revive an indoor mask mandate or other coronavirus-related requirements that were common during the first year of the pandemic.

“At this stage, it is still something that is up to the individual cities and towns,” said Max Reiss, a spokesman for Lamont. “Right now, I don’t think there’s anything on the horizon on a statewide basis.”

Connecticut’s positivity rate reached 5.96% Tuesday, up from 3.61% Friday and the highest recording in almost a year. It also cleared 5% on Monday. The state reported 365 hospitalizations, an increase of 11 from a day earlier.

Over the holiday weekend, health officials announced the emergence of a new COVID-19 variant, dubbed omicron, the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet. The World Health Organization classified omicron as a “variant of concern,” though little is known about it so far.

The WHO said it is not yet clear whether omicron is more transmissible or whether it causes more severe disease than other variants, such as delta.

“Preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of re-infection with omicron (i.e., people who have previously had COVID-19 could become re-infected more easily with omicron), as compared to other variants of concern, but information is limited,” the organization said in a statement.

Health officials are concerned omicron may be less susceptible to vaccines, though the vaccines’ effectiveness against the variant is not yet clear. Omicron has stoked fears among public health officials because of the high number of mutations – about 50 in total, according to The New York Times. No cases have been detected in the United States.

Given the uptick in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, Dr. Keith Grant, Hartford HealthCare’s senior director of infection prevention, said he soon may advocate for a revival of mandates like the indoor mask requirement.

“We all would love to live in a space where [people’s] personal responsibility leads them to an end goal that we all want. But if tomorrow Gov. Lamont made a decision that we’re going back to a mask mandate, I don’t think that would be the wrong thing,” Grant said Tuesday. “I understand why the decision was made before to remove the mandate and to stick with the decision. I don’t know how far he is from changing that decision. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s changed very soon.”

“I think government still has a significant role to play,” he added. “Government intervention may not be … very welcome. But it worked.”

Dr. Tom Balcezak, chief clinical officer for Yale New Haven Health, said he is not currently calling for the return of an indoor mask mandate, but he is keeping an eye on the omicron variant.

“I think it depends on what happens with this new variant,” he said. “If this new variant makes it into our population and we’re starting to see huge surges of patients again, I think the mask mandate is going to have to be considered.”

Even as case rates increased this fall, the Lamont administration has continued to emphasize personal responsibility when it comes to vaccination and masking. At a press conference last week discussing concerns heading into the holiday weekend, Lamont said he had no intention of reinstating the indoor mask mandate.

“I’ve seen that each wave has been less than it was before,” the governor said. “I think we’re going to see real pickup in terms of boosters. You’re going to see real pickup in terms of the child vaccines, and I don’t foresee any additional mandates.”

Dr. Manisha Juthani, the state’s public health commissioner, said residents understand the importance of masking.

“People in the state of Connecticut know what masks have done to help protect them in a community and people are making that decision every day,” she said.

In an interview Tuesday, Juthani reiterated people’s personal responsibility in assessing their risk and taking necessary precautions.

“What I can tell you as a public health official, and as an infectious disease doctor, is that you are safest – vaccinated or not – to wear your mask in a public place when you don’t know the vaccination status of those around you,” she said. “There are people who choose to listen to that advice, and there are people who choose not to listen to that advice.

“I think at this point, one of the things that’s a challenge is when we have put policies in place and then we relax those policies, it’s very hard for people mentally to want to go back to an old policy.”

Hospitals are dealing with both an influx of COVID-19 patients as well as a swell of patients who put off medical care in 2020. How stressed the hospital system becomes this winter will be a “major” factor in whether coronavirus-related mandates are reinstated, Juthani said.

“Our hospital system is bearing a lot of the burden. And what we in public health will be looking at very closely is how much can our hospitals manage,” she said. “That’s going to be, really, the major driving force for any change in policy that might happen.”

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