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March 8, 2021

Ned Lamont’s year in the shadow of COVID

Photo | CT MIRROR Gov. Ned Lamont is working from home under quarantine.

Hanging behind Gov. Ned Lamont’s desk is the painting “Right to Know.” Norman Rockwell completed it in 1968, years after the artist best known for folksy Saturday Evening Post illustrations had turned to serious themes, including distrust in government.

“He did this one, which is right at the height of the Vietnam War, and people just wanted an answer,” Lamont said. “Just tell them what you’re doing, why you’re doing, and explain it to me. And that was LBJ. He wasn’t explaining anything to anybody.”

The painting is from Lamont’s personal art collection, a wealthy man’s passion. He’s owned it for more than 15 years. But it didn’t go up on the wall of his office at the state Capitol until recently, well into the pandemic that has defined his time as governor.

If nothing else, Lamont said, he has tried to explain what he was doing and why he was doing it since declaring a public health emergency to fight the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Saturday is the anniversary of the detection of the novel coronavirus in Connecticut. The first two cases involved New York residents, each health care providers who worked in hospitals in Danbury and Norwalk. Others followed quickly.

“Remember how fast the wave crashed on the beach, right?” Lamont said. “I mean, you have an infection, you have a fatality. And then you shut things down.”

He declared a public health emergency on March 10, placed mild restrictions on public gatherings on March 12, shut down schools on March 15, and ordered broad closures of non-essential businesses on March 20. His public health emergency declaration came when there were only two confirmed cases among Connecticut residents.

COVID waves kept crashing on that beach: 3,128 cases and 69 deaths in a few weeks. By the end of April, there would be 27,770 cases and 2,257 deaths in Connecticut; by the end of May, 42,201 cases and 3,944 deaths.

The tally stood Thursday night at 284,500 probable cases, all but 20,000 confirmed by tests. There were 7,693 deaths associated with COVID-19 in Connecticut, and more than 500,000 in the United States.

The virus has brought death, economic dislocation and anger over who should get priority for scarce vaccines. Ned Lamont has been the face, voice and interpreter of the crisis, mourning deaths, explaining setbacks and, recently, cautiously celebrating.

A year in, Lamont is not declaring victory. 

The state reported 878 new cases and 15 deaths Thursday. The coronavirus is to be mitigated and minimized, not eradicated. But he is preparing to relinquish many of the unprecedented powers he’s wielded during the emergency, and he took a step Thursday towards normalcy.

He set March 19 as the date for eliminating capacity limits on restaurants, houses of worship and most businesses, while maintaining a mandate on social distancing and wearing masks. On April 20, his emergency powers expire, and he has no plans to ask for an extension.

“I think April 20 looks like a pretty reasonable date. I think by April 20, we’ll have half our people vaccinated,” Lamont said in an interview. “We’ve got to start now involving the legislature in terms of what happens after April 20. And I welcome that. I mean, sometimes I worry having 151 people deciding what bars to open when and how long they stay open.”But it is time, he said, for that decision to be shared. Lamont expects to cull from the executive orders, or EOs, issued over the past year and asked the legislature to endorse a select few.

“Let’s assume this thing is not behind us yet,” he said. “And I feel like we ought to, you know, I think we ought to have the mask mandate a little bit longer. And I would probably put together a small, slimmed down package of EOs where I need the legislature to say, ‘Let’s keep it going for another 30 days, or 60 days.’”

The pandemic has brought Lamont into everyone’s home. Televised briefings — daily at first, twice-a-week since the first waves receded last summer — have exposed him to Connecticut in a way that only comes during emergencies that are compelling and protracted, not unlike war.

His TV presence is avuncular and conversational, the syntax less than precise, subject not always preceding verb. He refers to staff, guests and reporters by first name. It implies continuity, familiarity and engagement.

There’s Paul, Josh, Deidre, David and Max and the occasional reference to Annie. Indra and Albert haven’t been on for a while, but Scott is coming next week. The expectation now is that everyone’s been at this table a time or two.

His briefings are like the quiz show, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” except he gets to phone a friend whenever he likes. 

The briefings are virtual, staff and guests on Zoom. Paul Mounds and Josh Geballe, his chief of staff and chief operating officer, are constants. David Lehman, the commissioner of economic and community development, joined him Thursday. Deidre Gifford, the acting commissioner of public health, is a semi-regular. Max Reiss, his communications director, is the M.C.

Indra Nooyi, the former Pepsico chief executive, and Dr. Albert Ko, a Yale epidemiologist, advised his re-opening committee. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a Westport resident and former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, is an informal adviser.

Lamont likes to think out loud, sometimes during briefings. Reporters can sense his staff holding their breath, even on Zoom. It never seems to bother the governor. He is comfortable not always knowing the answer.

During an interview in his office, the governor talked about what he’s learned about governing and what Connecticut’s learned about him. Aside from the Rockwell painting, there was the addition of an air purifier that softly hummed. His wife, Annie, sat in.

The pandemic forced the postponement of their daughter’s wedding, but there has been a benefit: Annie, the owner of a down-state venture capital firm, is now a remote worker, spending more time at the Executive Residence in Hartford than their home in Greenwich.

She always has been among his network of informal advisers.

“My whole life, I’d spent my time getting the very best and the brightest,” said Lamont, the founder of cable television company. “Give me the best analysis you can and then let me make a decision, and my job at the company was to explain it, right? You know, I don’t know that there’s a difference between fiber and coax? I had smart guys tell me the difference between fiber and coax, and I’d say, ‘Go with fiber, and this is why.’ And I’d have to explain it.”

Lamont said bringing the audience along was crucial, even if his emergency powers were absolute: His judgement essentially became law. But there was no guarantee people would follow, not when he was barring them from visiting parents in nursing homes, telling them to work from home when possible, forgo holiday gatherings and vacations, and wear that damn mask.

“I mean, I can’t do this stuff by edict. I can’t put you in jail if you’re not wearing a mask,” he said. “But I’ve got to do every bit I can to convince you why what we’re telling you was in your interest, in the interest of the greater community. That was a process that I felt pretty comfortable doing. I feel like I’ve been doing that for a lot of my life.”

The arrival of the pandemic brought a rush of problems and cascade of decisions.

“It was more comfortable in that I could have Indra and Albert or David and Deirdre, or I could get different points of view. You know, this is the pros and cons, the plus and the minus, the costs and the benefits of this. But now we have to decide this is a way to go. And I could decide really based on the merits of the case,” he said. “And then it was my job to try and explain, as best I could, in layman’s terms, why we made the decision we made.”

It was his call to set priorities for the COVID vaccines. The first phase was easy: nursing home patients and front-line medical workers, followed by first responders, anyone 75 or older, then 65. More or less, that was in line with recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention until Feb. 22.

Rather than open the vaccines to essential workers and people with co-morbidities as originally planned, however, Lamont changed course, opting to stay with a simple age-based criteria. The next phase, which started Monday, was for anyone 55 or older. Connecticut was going its own way.

The outcry was immediate.

Advocates for people with disabilities and chronic diseases bitterly complained, as did urban lawmakers with working-class constituents in retail and other jobs that can’t be safely done from home. All expected they were next in line.

Dr. David Emmel, chair of the Connecticut State Medical Society’s Committee on Legislation, said primary care physicians should have been involved.

“We had hoped the rollout would have included physicians, especially our primary care physicians, in the vaccination process, because that would have gotten around the conundrum of, ‘How do you decide who is medically at risk and deserving of the vaccine ahead of somebody who might be older but healthier?’ The primary care physicians would be in a good position to parse that out and to help those at high risk,” Emmel said. 

Lamont said others in health care told him privately that sorting through co-morbidities to decide eligibility was an unwanted task, one that would disrupt the system.

“They said, ‘Everybody’s gaming the system, everybody’s calling up, my text is exploding, and I’m not gonna sit around playing God. I want you to be clear about this. And let us follow your clear direction,’” Lamont said.

More recently, he said, other governors have told him they suspect Connecticut’s approach may be the fastest way to vaccinate anyone who wants a shot.

“I got calls from a half dozen governors within three days, saying, ‘Dammit, I’m so far down the line with essential workers. I wish I could do it, but I can’t.’ Janet Mills just went age-based. A couple of others said they’re thinking strongly about it. And I think CDC may say something in the next 10 days,” he said.

Mills is the governor of Maine, which opened vaccines to anyone 60 or older.

Last spring, Lamont delayed an announced reopening of hair salons after some stylists complained they were not ready, a public flip-flop that made him seem indecisive.

He has not wavered on vaccine eligibility, at least not in the current phase.

Jenna Carlesso contributed to this story.

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