VERNON, CT — Asked about mandating the COVID-19 vaccine in Connecticut, Saud Anwar launched into a winding preface. But the legislator and physician, who has treated patients throughout the pandemic, ultimately arrived at a simple calculation: will it save lives?
Anwar sat Thursday beside a desk in his Vernon pulmonology office and maintained unwavering eye contact. A doctor, insistent on a prognosis he knows you don’t want to hear.
“This is a scientific point of view,” he said, “based on data. If I was speaking from a political point of view, I would probably say, ‘Oh, let’s wait and see.’ But this is a reality and this is where I stand: a vaccine mandate is a good idea if we want our lives back.”
Partway through his second term in the state Senate, the 53 year-old Democrat from South Windsor has watched the pandemic’s impact from both points of view. As a physician specializing in respiratory ailments and as a politician trying to influence policy in Hartford.
It’s one of those “right place at the right time” situations, he said. But if the state hopes to rein in the spread of the easily transmissible Delta variant, it needs to take a firmer stance on vaccinations, Anwar said. In the last few weeks, the variant has spiked infection rates and filled hospital beds around Connecticut despite the summer weather. As of Friday, 259 people were hospitalized with COVID-19. A month earlier there had been 35.
Although Connecticut has generally high vaccination rates, uptake levels are uneven and some major population centers lag behind. State statistics released last week put Hartford’s vaccination rate at 48.6%. Meanwhile several towns in the state’s more sparsely populated eastern region trail well under 60%. Anwar said those areas of low vaccination are prolonging the public health crisis.
“People have made a personal choice not to take the vaccine at the cost of the lives of every other person and the fact that we will have more variants show up because of the unvaccinated individuals, we will continue to muddle through this pandemic,” he said.
Anwar is not the only person in the medical sector open to the idea of mandating the vaccine. During a Friday press event, Dr. Jim O’Dea, Hartford HealthCare’s vice president of behavioral health, spoke at length about constructive ways to discuss the vaccine with hesitant people. His advice largely centered on conversation with an ear toward understanding concerns rather than persuasion. But asked by a reporter about a mandate, O’Dea didn’t rule it out.
“We thought we were coming to the end of this terrible, terrible tragedy and now we’re seeing it rise again. So if we expect different results, we have to do something different and so, yes, I think there’s a place for [a mandate],” O’Dea said.
Vaccine mandates are a hot-button issue, sure to stir controversy. In recent years, opponents of state-mandated vaccinations have been outspoken and organized. The legislature’s decision this year to remove a religious exemption to school vaccination requirements prompted protests at the state Capitol drawing hundreds, sometimes thousands of attendees.
Anwar, who was a proponent of the change, said his position made him a target of harassment and threats. On Thursday, he described receiving a letter that named his children and his mother. “Let’s go to his house and teach him a lesson today,” he recalled reading online. The threats have done little to change his outlook.
“If we, as a society, cannot have the empathy and the responsibility to protect our children because a small, loud group of people are going to yell and scream and threaten us? Then we should not be in the policy-making business,” he said.
However, a statewide vaccine mandate remains unlikely. Although he issued a limited vaccine order applying to nursing home employees, Gov. Ned Lamont has generally preferred to incentivize vaccine uptake rather than require it. Although the governor concedes that state incentives have done little to move the needle, the administration says the surge of infections driven by the Delta variant has led to an increase in new vaccinations.
Last month, Anwar was one of a handful of Democrats to join Republicans in voting against the legislature’s extension of Lamont’s emergency powers until Sept. 30. Asked about the vote, Anwar was diplomatic, saying the governor had done a good job steering the state through the pandemic, especially in the early months where federal guidance was nonexistent or counterproductive. But Anwar said he saw little in Lamont’s emergency plans that could not be accomplished without an ongoing declaration.
The COVID situation has since changed and now he’s hoping the governor will issue statewide mask requirements for both businesses and schools. Lamont is expected to announce in the coming week whether he will leave in place a school mask mandate, which last year drew an unsuccessful legal challenge from a group of parents.
Opponents of vaccination requirements have also challenged mandates where they have been instituted. On Thursday, a federal court judge in New Haven heard arguments in a case contesting a University of Connecticut rule that residential students to take the shot or apply for an exemption. Anwar suggested the state could consider more proactive legal strategies.
“Maybe there’s a lawsuit to be opened against people who are spreading the disease? Can we sue them?” he said. “It is the state’s responsibility to protect its citizens and if somebody is using weaponized misinformation to harm our citizens, maybe the state needs to sue them.”
Amidst a public health crisis, misinformation can have consequences. Throughout the pandemic Anwar has worked in the intensive care unit at Manchester Hospital. Last year, he said he treated one COVID patient who formed strong opinions based on what Anwar called “alternative treatment” ideas found online.
“She refused a number of treatments that would have helped her and she ultimately died,” he said. “It was very painful because you saw right in front of you the power of misinformation, leading to an individual dying. Misinformation has been weaponized in our time.”