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Two years after COVID hit CT, Lamont pivots gently to the future

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Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public

There is no official marking of COVID-19 anniversaries in Connecticut, not the first of 730,811 positive tests, the first of 10,615 deaths nor the first of six emergency declarations, all of which took place in March 2020.

But on Tuesday, outside a community center on the east side of Manchester, the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont and local officials looked back before talking about what’s next.

“March madness,” recalled Mayor Jay Moran, who was the athletic director of Southern Connecticut State University when the National Guard rolled up and converted SCSU’s field house into a field hospital. “Remember that, governor?”

Moran looked towards Lamont and Maj. Gen. Francis J. Evon Jr., the adjutant of the Connecticut National Guard, whose members were called up to fight COVID 735 days ago. The governor and the general smiled. The hospital was ready in less than a day.

”The better news was that we didn’t ever have to use that hospital,” Moran said.

Two years ago, they didn’t know exactly what was coming, whether the hospitals would be overwhelmed, whether COVID patients would fill waiting beds in a college field house in New Haven or a convention center in Hartford.

The first infection detected in a Connecticut resident came on March 8, a Wilton resident who had just returned from California. Two days later, standing in a crowded Emergency Operations Center, the governor declared a state of emergency. No one wore a mask. That guidance was yet to come.

The first death came on March 18, a man in his 80s who lived at an assisted living facility in Ridgefield and died at Danbury Hospital.

The last state of emergency expired exactly a month ago, and the commissioner of public health, Dr. Manisha Juthani, said Tuesday the department was preparing to wean Connecticut from the daily COVID updates and pivot to weekly reports.

“We are starting to enter a new phase of this pandemic,” Juthani said.

There were 305 infections detected in the 10,607 tests reported since Monday, a daily positivity rate of 2.88%. Hospitalizations fell by 8 to 113. Juthani, an infectious disease specialist, said COVID won’t go away, nor would the occasional need for masks or more vaccinations.

“We know we’re going to see bumps in the road. That’s just this virus. This virus is unpredictable,” Juthani said. “There may be bumps in the road. But the reality is that now we have a highly vaccinated population in the state of Connecticut. We have booster shots that are available. There may be more boosters necessary.”

Lamont, a Democrat seeking reelection this year, has avoided declarations of victory. But he is aware that his management of the pandemic has defined him more than any other issue, lifting his approval rating from the bottom quintile of gubernatorial ratings to the top one.

“There was no playbook,” Lamont said of March 2020. “And that was the month of hell. There also was a silver lining, because I think people of Connecticut came together. We learned quickly and responded as one.”

He closed restaurants, bars and other public venues — hardly to universal applause. When vaccines became available, he rejected the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to administer them following a matrix of need that he deemed illogical.

Lamont gently mocked that guidance.

“‘We now have the vaccines, we’re gonna roll out the vaccines. And I want you to prioritize everybody who’s got a pre-existing condition, everybody who’s a little overweight, everybody that maybe smoked cigarettes while they were in college, and everybody who’s an essential worker, or thinks they might be an essential worker.’ In other words, prioritize everybody,” Lamont said.

Instead, the Lamont administration offered the vaccines by age cohorts, starting with the oldest, as well as nursing home residents and employees, and hospital workers. It was simple to administer, and it put Connecticut among the leaders in vaccination rates.

“We got more of our people vaccinated faster. And I think we saved hundreds and hundreds of lives the way we did,” Lamont said. “We’ve got a way to go, and I know how exhausted the people of Connecticut are. But take this as a good day.”

The pandemic is not over, he said, but it’s a good day.

“Our kids are back in school. Today, we’re not wearing masks,” he said. “And we’re ready. If something else comes, we know how to keep ourselves safe. We know what it takes.”