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State worker vaccination mandate to expire, among other executive orders

Gov. Ned Lamont at a hospital in Stamford on Jan. 3, when COVID cases were surging. Behind him are state Sen. Patricia B. Miller and Mayor Caroline Simmons.
Gov. Ned Lamont at a hospital in Stamford on Jan. 3, when COVID cases were surging. Behind him are state Sen. Patricia B. Miller and Mayor Caroline Simmons.

Legislative leaders said Wednesday night that Gov. Ned Lamont will not seek an extension of his executive order requiring state employees to either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing.

His decision takes one of his more controversial orders off the table as the governor and lawmakers negotiate new rules for managing the pandemic after the expiration of his emergency powers on Feb. 15. He temporarily suspended the testing requirement before Christmas.

Legislative leaders and the governor talked privately Wednesday in a video call about 11 executive orders he would like to stay in force, rather than extend the sweeping powers available under a state of emergency first declared on March 10, 2020.

“The governor at this time is focused on providing a list of executive orders that will allow him to keep the overall safety and response to this emergency crisis,” said Paul Mounds, the governor’s chief of staff.

As to which orders no longer are deemed necessary, Mounds deferred to the governor, who will be holding a video press conference on COVID late Thursday afternoon.

Lamont, administration officials and legislative leaders of both parties talked Wednesday afternoon for an hour, ending the call without a definite path forward.

“My position is voting on the 11 orders is easy. If you want us to vote on them, we’ll vote on them,” said House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford. “But the tougher question is: What are we doing after this? And that’s where things kind of fell apart.”

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said, “Talks are ongoing, and a clearer picture will develop very soon.”

Infections and hospitalizations in Connecticut continued to fall Wednesday, mirroring a trend in New Jersey and New York that suggests that the current surge has peaked.

“If that’s the case, it’s a very different conversation than we first had as a caucus 14 days ago, when the positivity rate was over 20%,” said House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford.

Connecticut’s positivity rate was 16% Wednesday, down from 24% last week. Hospitalizations fell by another 14 to 1,805. But there still were 4,745 new infections, and epidemiologists warn that the virus will remain a public health challenge to be managed for months to come.

Candelora and Ritter said the struggle is to increase legislative oversight and relieve the governor of his authority to unilaterally impose temporary changes in state law while retaining a measure of flexibility for the administration.

“The pandemic can't be managed by the legislature,” Candelora said. “Certainly we have a role in the process, but we do need to bring in the experts. And that's why one of the compromises that we wanted in September was a public hearing process, at least so the governor could hear from people.”

Over two days in late September, the General Assembly voted in special session to extend Lamont’s emergency COVID-19 powers through Feb. 15, a measure that kept modified mask and vaccination mandates in place. A temporary law giving a committee of legislative leaders the ability to reject emergency orders expires March 1.

The statewide mask requirement applies to schools, nursing homes and other health facilities, mass transit and state offices ; a separate order from Lamont gave local officials discretion over requiring masks indoors in other places, such as stores, restaurants and event venues.

There is no vaccine requirement for the general public, though private employers and venue owners can demand them as a condition of employment or admission. Lamont’s vaccination mandate applies to state employees and health care workers.

“I think most of them are, quite frankly, not very controversial. There’s a couple that are potentially — the mask mandates, obviously,” Ritter said of the emergency orders Lamont wants to continue. “Even the vaccine one is limited to health care workers at this point. He’s not asking for the state employee testing or vaccination requirements to continue.”

Lamont did issue a new order Wednesday, directing nursing homes to require visitors to show proof of being fully vaccinated or recently tested and found negative for COVID. The rule takes effect Saturday.

Candelora said the administration would have been better served with a longer notice period, delaying implementation at least until Monday.

“These orders need more of an input from stakeholders,” he said.

A willingness to take a rapid antigen test at the nursing home would allow access, whether such a test was available or not. The state is distributing 50,000 tests to nursing homes, beginning Friday, the administration said.

Ritter said one unresolved question is what the option would be if a new executive order is deemed necessary, a circumstance not covered by codifying in state law a limited list of existing orders.

“You could rewrite a whole new statutory scheme or framework if you wish to do it. You could revert back to the current one we have,” he said. “Or you could just say there's no more emergency. And so you're left with the governor having to either ask for special acts for things that he wants, or declare a new emergency somewhere down the road.”

The legislature’s 2022 session opens Feb. 9.

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