Bob Stefanowski and his running mate Rep. Laura Devlin Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Neither Bob Stefanowski nor Gov. Ned Lamont seemed inclined to add the COVID-19 vaccine to Connecticut’s schedule of required childhood immunizations on Thursday as a federal advisory committee included it in a list of doctor-recommended shots.

Stefanowski, a Republican from Madison, began a budgetary press conference by declaring that neither he nor his running mate Rep. Laura Devlin of Fairfield believed in mandating the shot despite both being vaccinated themselves. 

“We don’t think it should be forced, forced on kids, forced on public employees. It’s up to the person,” Stefanowski said. “They should have the choice. Governor Lamont’s been unclear on where he stands. I hope that now that we’ve issued our statement, we get clarity on where he stands today.”

The announcement was apparently in response to the Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices vote during annual meeting Thursday, to add the COVID vaccine to a list of inoculations doctors recommend to their patients. 

The list does not mandate that school children get the shot in order to attend school. However, that’s how Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson characterized the move during his nightly show earlier this week. The misstatement prompted a clarification from the CDC, which tweeted that states set their own rules for what shots are required of school children. 

So would Lamont require the shot if re-elected? Not likely, he told reporters during an afternoon press conference. He compared the COVID vaccine to the influenza shot, which is not required as part of the state’s vaccine schedule for children, as opposed to the measles vaccine, which is required. The flu shot is still required for children 5 and under to attend school.

“We didn’t require anything in the classroom. I don’t think that’s going to have to change for any reason I can imagine. It’s not like measles where a kid gets measles, the entire class gets infected. This is a very different situation. I think that’s a very different situation. COVID’s a little more like flu…I think [COVID] will be treated a little more like flu,” Lamont said. “I encourage people to get the flu vaccine, I encourage people to get the COVID vaccine. No mandates.”

The decision on which vaccines are ultimately rests with the state public health commissioner. On Thursday, Commissioner Manisha Juthani released a statement in which she stressed the CDC panel vote did not create a mandate for children to receive the COVID vaccine in order to attend school.

“This is a recommendation that is part of the standard process for every routine childhood vaccine that is covered under the [Vaccines for Children] program,” Juthani said. “This vote simply means that once COVID-19 vaccines are commercialized and no longer available under the Federal Government’s National COVID-19 Response, VFC providers will be able to order the vaccines through the Vaccines for Children program.”

Gov. Ned Lamont Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Though the exchange was perhaps anticlimactic, it highlights how little COVID policy has factored into this year’s election cycle, which has been dominated instead by economic concerns driven by inflation, arguments over public safety, and debate about abortion policy driven by the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade earlier this year.

But while COVID policy has largely drifted from public debate, it was a defining element of Lamont’s first term. The governor’s handling of the pandemic contributed to a rebound in public polling, which had suffered from his unsuccessful attempt to adopt tolling on Connecticut highways early in his tenure.

Connecticut’s handling of COVID and vaccines also fueled some of Lamont’s most outspoken critics. During the height of the pandemic, protesters opposed to mask mandates and business closures were a common sight at the governor’s press conferences.

Last August, opponents of a school masking requirement grew so rowdy at a back-to-school roundtable in Cheshire that the event was abruptly concluded and the governor was escorted back to his vehicle. 

On Thursday, Lamont said he felt good about the state’s pandemic response and was glad it did not factor too heavily into the back and forth of this year’s campaign.

“We did pretty well as a state. We looked out for each other, we rallied, we got things opened safely — earlier than most other states,” he said. “I think there’s sort of general agreement on that. It’s probably not a big campaign issue. That’s probably a good thing.”