While legislative leaders expect to temporarily codify 11 pandemic-related executive orders, Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration said Thursday it hoped to retain some form of its emergency authority that is currently set to expire next month.
The governor met remotely with six legislative leaders this week and outlined nearly a dozen policies he wants the General Assembly to ratify before the scheduled expiration of his emergency declarations on Feb. 15.
Among those Lamont asked to continue are requirements that health care workers be vaccinated against COVID-19 and a policy allowing executive branch agencies to require masks in Connecticut schools. The governor is not seeking to extend a policy requiring the vaccination or weekly testing of state employees, teachers and child care workers.
But while legislators may debate and eventually ratify the governor’s list, Lamont told reporters during a Thursday briefing it was important to maintain the emergency declaration the state has had in place since the pandemic began in March 2020. The emergency status helped the state qualify for federal funding, both from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the governor said.
But will he need ongoing emergency powers?
“Look, that’s up to the legislature,” Lamont said. “I think it is important though that your state government be able to act and act quickly if the world is not quite as optimistic as Scott [Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a guest at the governor’s briefing] and I hope it is — if there is something that comes along.”
Paul Mounds, Jr., the governor’s chief of staff, clarified that the legislature would need to extend the declaration before Feb. 15, in order for Lamont to retain additional flexibility, but he said such a call would be prudent.
“I would say the people of Connecticut expect that government has a nimbleness to ensure that they can respond to an emergency that is presented to us,” Mounds said.
In interviews Thursday, legislative leaders said they expected a vote on the 11 orders at some time before mid-February. The legislative session begins on Feb. 9. What was less clear was whether the governor would seek an extension of his emergency powers and how the state would continue to manage the ebb and flow of a virus if he did not.
House Speaker Matt Ritter said the governor’s team seemed confident Wednesday the handful of policies included in their request would be sufficient to manage whatever came next. Ritter seemed less certain.
“Look, if someone told us today that this is all we need, these EOs, it’s really not a hard situation,” Ritter said. “What’s complicated is thinking about next November, next December, this summer. The unknowns of this virus.”
Republicans have long been opposed to extensions of the executive powers and House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said he was frustrated there was no consensus about how the state should be governed as the virus faded from an imminent emergency to an endemic reality.
“By and large the emergency is over. The pandemic is not,” Candelora said. “Republicans felt that way six months ago. Do we still need to manage the pandemic? Yes. Is there an emergency? No.”
Candelora said he felt state Democrats had failed to develop a plan to manage the virus over the long term. The legislature passed a temporary law last year which gave a panel of legislative leaders a window to reject new executive orders issued by the governor. That provision expires on March 1.
The bill also included a task force to consider more permanent changes to the state’s emergency declaration law. The task force went ignored and met only once for an organizational meeting, Candelora said.
Going forward, he said the state needed to find a mechanism to enact COVID policies in a way where stakeholders get to weigh in on the policies, similar to how the state develops regulations.
“We would like to see a public hearing competent to these executive orders because we are no longer in a state of emergency where we need to react quickly,” Candelora said. “We need to manage this pandemic and I think it should be done with a more deliberative, inclusive process.”
The uncertainty over who should continue to steer the state through the ongoing pandemic comes as statistics from the Public Health Department have recently suggested Connecticut had crested the worst of a surge in COVID-19 driven by a combination of the highly infectious omicron variant and holiday gatherings in late December.
Thursday’s weekly coronavirus update reported the infection rate had continued to fall to 13.29% after climbing above 24% earlier this month. Hospitalizations also declined by 72 to 1,733. Just last week they had been at 1,939, close to the state’s highwater mark for the pandemic. Meanwhile, another 241 people died with the virus last week, putting the state total at 9,683 since the pandemic began.
Gottlieb, a former head of the Food and Drug Administration and occasional advisor to Lamont, was optimistic the northeast would continue to see a reduction in the virus. His comments echoed those of Dr. Ulysses Wu, Hartford HealthCare’s chief epidemiologist, at a separate press conference earlier Thursday.
“It looks like we’ve passed our peak with regards to almost all of the measures that we are following,” Wu said. “Probably, we’re on the down slope of our rollercoaster at this point.”
But Wu, and Dr. Ajay Kumar, Hartford HealtCare’s chief clinical officer, also warned residents against relaxing their guard at this point, saying they expected to see a protracted decline in the virus.
“We are still seeing a high mortality in individuals who are not vaccinated,” Kumar said. “We are managing the pandemic at this time but we have not won the war yet. We’ve got a ways to go.”