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House confirms Manisha Juthani as DPH commissioner

Dr. Manisha Juthani answers a question from a journalist in July.
Dr. Manisha Juthani answers a question from a journalist in July.

House Republicans futilely objected Wednesday to the confirmation of Dr. Manisha Juthani as commissioner of public health, re-litigating how Connecticut employed lockdowns, vaccinations and mask mandates to fight COVID-19.

Knowing they had no chance at denying confirmation of an epidemiologist recruited from the Yale School of Medicine during the pandemic, the GOP minority used the debate to vent over restrictions, most no longer in force.

“There is no question that the commissioner is very qualified, educated, experienced for the job to which she has been appointed,” said Rep. Jason Perillo, R-Shelton. But he added, “It’s not just about talent. It’s also about trust.”

The House voted 96-53 to confirm Juthani, whom Gov. Ned Lamont named as the acting commissioner on July 26, 2021 — long after Connecticut lifted most restrictions on retailers, restaurants and houses of worship.

Max Reiss, the governor’s communications director, said the administration was lucky to have Juthani’s counsel before and after she took the job.

“Commissioner Juthani joined the administration at a critical time and provided valuable counsel as our state transitioned to the next phase of the pandemic,” Reiss said. “Her leadership has continued to be invaluable. The people of Connecticut are grateful for her confirmation.”

One of the two Republicans to vote for her confirmation was Rep. William Petit of Plainville, the only physician in the House. The other was Rep. Kathleen McCarty of Waterford. Rep. Minnie Gonzalez of Hartford was the only Democrat opposed.

Perillo faulted Juthani for misleading the public about the availability of test kits, a purchase that fell through. He said she was less than forthright in how she eventually acknowledged the mistake.

Others objected to the advice she gave, both as a Yale infectious disease expert consulted by Lamont and then as commissioner.

Rep. Dave Rutigliano, R-Trumbull, a restaurant owner, took issue with her suggestion in December 2020 that people avoid dining out during a surge, despite the state having allowed indoor dining with social distancing rules.

“Long after all the evidence came in that the lockdowns and the shutdowns weren’t working, this doctor continually called for the lockdowns of most businesses here in Connecticut,” he said. “She caused an immeasurable amount of damage to people’s livelihoods.”

Juthani was among the physicians who had urged against indoor dining and in favor of closing gyms, not widespread business closures.

Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, faulted her for the state’s requirement that health-care workers be vaccinated, saying the dismissal of unvaccinated staff exacerbated staff shortages.

The debate came on the first day the House had abandoned its requirement that masks be worn in the chamber. But Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, said masks still are required in some schools, though not by state edict.

“And it’s been two years now. Two long, ugly years that we’ve been put through this stuff,” Dubitsky said.

Connecticut never closed manufacturing or retailers that sold food, but restaurants were hard hit both by the restrictions and, in the view of restaurant owners, fears of dining out before vaccinations were widely available.

“I have very little doubt that the people in my district who lost their jobs because of the decisions and the poor judgment of this nominee would want me to vote to ensure that this nominee also lost her job,” Dubitsky said.

Knowing that her confirmation was not in doubt, Democrats largely remained silent while Republicans attacked Juthani.

But Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, co-chair of the Public Health Committee, finally rose with a wry rebuttal, apologizing that his new hearing aids left him struggling to process the debate at times.

“And I just want to make sure that I’ve heard what I’ve heard with regard to some of the testimony today, with regard to the character and the testimony of Commissioner Juthani,” Steinberg said.

Steinberg said Juthani has been candid with lawmakers and the public, even when delivering an unpopular message.

“I’m really kind of surprised that there seems to be a lack of consensus on somebody who is going to be, has already been and will continue to be such a strong proponent of looking out for the health of the people of the state of Connecticut,” he said. “We could not do better.”

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