Connecticut will suspend enforcement of a COVID vaccine or weekly testing mandate for education employees and most state workers in an effort to free up the state’s testing capacity for the next two weeks, Gov. Ned Lamont said Monday. 

The temporary “pause” was part of an effort to ramp up availability of testing options and comes as state officials urge residents to screen themselves for COVID-19 infection before gathering with friends and family for the holidays. 

“Right now we have tens of thousands of teachers and paras and folks who work in state government and we’re going to pause their mandate for testing just to give a little more flexibility for them and make sure we have a little extra capacity to provide for testing going forward,” Lamont said during a press conference on the state’s COVID-19 situation. 

The state-imposed vaccine or testing mandate, which Lamont enacted via executive order in August, applies to all education workers, state employees and hospital employees. Those working at state-run hospitals must be vaccinated and will be unaffected by the pause, officials said.  

Public Health Commissioner Manisha Juthani said the temporary suspension of the order would free up significant capacity for other residents looking to screen themselves for infection. Roughly half the tests conducted at Connecticut’s 23 state-sponsored testing sites are related to employees complying with the weekly testing option, Juthani said. 

COVID testing site on Albany Avenue Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie.com

As of Monday, the state had fired 153 workers for refusing to comply with the requirement and another 144 employees had been placed on unpaid leave, Josh Geballe, state chief operating officer, said. Geballe said workers were trending towards vaccination including in the Department of Correction, the agency with the highest percentage of unvaccinated employees. Geballe said about 66% of DOC workers had now been vaccinated. 

More than 90,000 Connecticut residents were tested for the virus over the week. About 6.85% of them tested positive. The governor was optimistic Connecticut would add another seven state-sponsored testing sites in the coming weeks and expand the hours of the existing 23 sites. Lamont said hospitals and pharmacies in the state also had plans to expand their testing offerings. 

“Maybe people going on vacation and stuff, there’ll be one last big rush to get tested,” Lamont said. “We’re doing everything we can to ramp that up and so far, we’re handling 30, 40% more tests today than we were just a couple weeks ago and I think we’re getting by.”

Juthani said Sema4, the company operating more than half the state-sponsored sites, had agreed to continue testing until the end of January, following news last week the laboratory would leave the testing business midway through the month. Juthani said the extension would allow her department additional time to find a replacement. 

“We had competitively bid for vendors who are ready and willing to pick up those sites. So over the next several weeks we are going to be identifying [replacements],” Juthani said. “At least for the state-run sites, we will have a plan in place to be able to pick up those sites.”

At the moment, Lamont said Connecticut had no plans to supply free at-home testing options to residents, as some other states have done. Geballe said the state is looking at possible policies to distribute at-home tests in the future, but worried some may go unused if they are issued to everyone. Lamont said supply of the at-home tests remains an issue. 

“At-home tests are sporadically available at your local pharmacies right now,” Lamont said. “We’re trying like heck to get more at-home tests here to the state of Connecticut so we can make them more broadly available. The question is not how you distribute them right now, the question is the supply.” 

Over the weekend, the number of people hospitalized with COVID in Connecticut increased by 101 to 837 patients. Juthani said she continued to closely watch the state’s available hospital capacity as the highly-infectious omicron variant spreads.

Juthani said it was “reasonable” for people without symptoms to seek tests ahead of holiday gatherings in an effort to protect their loved ones.

“Doing a test before you gather is one more thing you can do, particularly because we are in a phase where we have a lot of spread with likely omicron overtaking delta right now and being very infectious,” she said.

The governor closed out his update saying omicron may not be the last variant of the virus. But he said the state was better prepared to handle new strains. 

“Sorry we’re still having this discussion, I know it’s getting exhausting,” Lamont said. “I hope you have some air of hope that this year’s going to be different, it’s going to be a better Christmas, a better holiday season and you can go about your lives safely if you take all the necessary precautions.” 

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