Former Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchel and Bob Stefanowski Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

HARTFORD, CT — In a closing shot at Gov. Ned Lamont’s handling of COVID-19, Republican Bob Stefanowski stood Thursday with fired Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell and accused the governor of endangering nursing home residents during the pandemic. 

Stefanowski’s morning press event outside the state Capitol building comes just four days before voters head to the polls and picks up on a point of contention exposed during a gubernatorial debate on Tuesday night, when the Republican challenger claimed the governor sent infected COVID patients into nursing homes thereby exposing a vulnerable population to the virus. 

Lamont has rejected the claim, arguing that COVID-positive hospital patients needing a step down facility were either sent to separate, empty nursing homes or segregated wings of operational nursing homes. 

However, Stefanowski alleged Tuesday that he had caught the governor in a lie and resumed that argument Thursday. He said Lamont was quick to take credit for a competent response to the COVID pandemic.

“Tell that to the people who had parents in nursing homes that were sitting next to a COVID infected patient that died,” Stefanowski said. “There was no rulebook for COVID. I get it. It was a once-in-hopefully-history. I get it. But the governor needs to step up and say he made a mistake. The people who lost loved ones deserve it and he’s got to stop lying about it.”

For much of this year’s campaign cycle, Stefanowski spent relatively little time attacking Lamont’s COVID-era leadership. Public opinion of the first-term Democrat, which had tanked after his unsuccessful attempt to adopt tolls on Connecticut highways, largely rebounded following his handling of the public health crisis. 

But as the Madison Republican trails by double digits in public polling in the last hours of the campaign, Stefanowski has increasingly cited statistics related to the state’s nursing home casualties during the pandemic. Between March and July of 2020, 2,849 people died of COVID-19 in Connecticut nursing homes. 

Stefanowski said he would have better planned for the pandemic and made arrangements to house COVID-postive patients at facilities other than nursing homes. 

To help him make that point Thursday, he appeared with Coleman-Mitchell, Lamont’s first public health commissioner, who he fired in the early days of the pandemic. Coleman-Mitchell was seated with Stefanowski supporters during this week’s debate and has appeared recently on conservative radio shows. She told reporters that her advice went unheeded prior to her firing.

However, the event quickly veered from allegations that Lamont had erred by allowing nursing homes to accept COVID positive resident to claims the Lamont administration had engaged in discrimination by dismissing Coleman-Mitchell, who has since filed a federal lawsuit to that effect. As of Thursday, Coleman-Mitchell and the state were unable to reach a settlement agreement in the case.

“His handling of COVID-19 was to replace his hand-selected top public health official with a male with no public health experience or practice to lead the pandemic response?” Coleman-Mitchell said. “What does that say to the people who have lost their loved ones? Does that say we have done a great job? What part of COVID-19 was truly successful when you look at the number of deaths?”

Soon after Coleman-Mitchell’s departure, Lamont named Dr. Deidre Gifford, his social services commissioner, as a temporary replacement and eventually nominated Dr. Manish Juthani, an infectious disease physician at Yale, to the post.    

Stefanowski invited another speaker, Luis Ortiz, to discuss his complaints about racism within the Department of Transportation, which he said had fallen on deaf ears.

“Every voter needs to make up their mind about the character of the next governor,” Stefanowski said. “I’m just pointing out the facts. We’ve got two people standing behind me that think it’s an issue.”

Sen. Saud Anwar talks to reporters while Bob Stefanowski watches Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Democrats reacted quickly to the event, firing off a press release condemning Stefanowski’s “misinformation tour” and dispatching Saud Anwar, a state senator and pulmonologist from South Windsor, to rebut the Republicans comments related to nursing homes. Anwar said it was necessary to move COVID-positive patients out of hospitals as they were recovering. 

“If everybody was recovering in the in-patient setting, we would have had no room to take care of the people in the emergency departments coming left and right with low oxygen levels,” Anwar said. “Those patients had to be transferred to COVID recovery facilities. That was common sense, that was what was recommended and that was what was done.”

Meanwhile, the state Public Health Department issued a statement saying the agency had followed Centers for Disease Control guidance and advised nursing homes to keep COVID positive patients isolated from other residents. The state also stood up COVID recovery facilities for patients that needed care after leaving the hospital, DPH spokesman Christopher Boyle said.

“Covid Recovery Facilities also accepted COVID positive residents from nursing homes when cohorting was too difficult for a facility to do effectively,” Boyle said. “Covid Recovery Facilities were stood up either in empty nursing homes or in selected nursing homes with entire vacant wings.”