File photo of a COVID vaccine clinic at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Connecticut hospital and nursing home employees will soon be required to get COVID-19 booster shots through a combination of an executive order and agreement with the state’s hospital association announced Thursday. 

During an afternoon press conference, Gov. Ned Lamont said he would be issuing an executive order, which would mandate booster shots for employees of the state’s nursing home and elder care facilities as well as staff at Connecticut’s state-run hospitals. Meanwhile, Patrick Charmel, president of Griffin Hospital and head of the Connecticut Hospital Association, said the state’s privately-run hospitals would follow suit.

“That will pay dramatic dividends,” Lamont said. “That will open up capacity at our hospitals, make it easier for us to transfer people from the hospitals to the nursing homes and allow us to get back to more regular and normal hours in our nursing homes.”

The additional mandate impacts workers who had previously been required to be vaccinated against the virus and comes as Connecticut’s COVID infection rates swell amidst spread of the highly-contagious omicron variant. As of Thursday, the state’s infection rate stood at 22.8% and hospitalizations climbed by more than 100 to 1,784. In a weekly report, the state announced another 121 COVID-related deaths, bringing the state total to 9,281. 

The workers mandated by the governor’s executive order will need to receive a booster shot by Feb. 11. Charmel said the requirement for hospital workers would be more fluid and depend on when they last received a shot but would impact most by March. 

“The reason why we’re taking this step is, as you’ve heard we really have started to see an uptick in our cases in both staff and residents of long term care facilities,” Social Services Commissioner Deidre Gifford said. “We want to do whatever we can to prevent that.”

Gifford pointed to dramatic increases in just the past week. There were roughly 1,400 cases among nursing home staff members reported this week compared to 700 the week before, she said. Resident cases climbed from around 200 to more than 630, she said. Despite the increase in cases, Gifford said prior vaccinations had kept mortality rates lower than they had been during the initial surge. 

Both Charmel and Matthew Barrett, president and CEO of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, expected high rates of compliance with the new requirement. However, at the moment booster shot uptake has been relatively low among staff in both hospitals and nursing homes. The governor said about 31% of nursing home staff statewide had so far been boosted. Charmel estimated the rate among hospital staff to be between 35 and 50%. 

“There’s an exhaustion factor that’s coming into play here. That it’s nearly two years or more that we’ve been through this pandemic and our employees — much has been asked of them,” Barrett said. “I think there’s every reason to believe that our nursing home staff and assisted living communities are going to rise to the occasion once more.”

The administration had no immediate plans to extend a similar requirement to state employees and education professionals, who the governor had previously required to either be vaccinated or test for the virus every week. However, Josh Geballe, state chief operating officer, said they were considering it. 

“We wanted to focus initially here on the facilities and populations that directly care for the most at-risk individuals in the most high-risk settings,” Geballe said. “That’s where we’re starting the focus.”

The administration is also cognizant of the looming expiration of Lamont’s current emergency declaration, which is set to sunset on Feb. 15. As it stands now, the legislature would need to help enact a booster shot requirement for state employees. 

Asked whether he still planned to let the emergency powers expire, Lamont was noncommittal. 

“We’re talking to the legislature about that,” Lamont said. “We are going to put forward a group of executive orders we’d like them to opine on, like them to allow to continue. But that’s in discussion.”