Vote 2022: Fired health commissioner blasts Lamont in campaign appearance with Stefanowski
Connecticut’s former public health commissioner harshly criticized Gov. Ned Lamont’s COVID response in a campaign appearance with his opponent Thursday. Renee Coleman-Mitchell was fired two months into the pandemic and has since filed a federal discrimination lawsuit.
Coleman-Mitchell stood next to Republican Bob Stefanowski at a press conference outside the state capitol Thursday.
"The governor brags and boasts about how well he handled, and his administration – that I was not a part of – handled COVID-19, and keeps that narrative out there, hiding the fact that many lives were needlessly lost,” Coleman-Mitchell told reporters.
Lamont has campaigned on his COVID response. The governor’s poll numbers surged as Connecticut re-opened businesses and schools faster than surrounding states. The state also has one of the nation’s highest vaccination rates.
But according to Coleman-Mitchell, the Lamont administration ignored her recommendations about nursing home safety weeks before he locked facilities down.
"I sounded the alarm early on, that first week in March,” she said. "Test all the staff – the cleaning crew, the food staff – and we need to restrict visitations. And was told that you can't do that."
Lamont fired back in a televised debate on Tuesday.
"Nobody put infected COVID patients back in with the general population at nursing homes. That's absolutely false,” he said. “Fortunately, we had empty nursing homes, so we were able to put them there. We had wings that were closed down."
Following CDC guidance, some recovering hospital patients were discharged to segregated wings of nursing homes during the pandemic’s early weeks. The controversial practice was criticized in New York state, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration under-reported nursing home deaths.
Later that spring, the Department of Public Health transferred patients to previously-closed nursing homes.
“In the spring of 2020, DPH stood up several Covid Recovery Facilities to which COVID positive patients who needed skilled nursing care were transferred directly from hospitals,” said DPH spokesman Christopher Boyle. “Covid Recovery Facilities also accepted COVID positive residents from nursing homes when cohorting was too difficult for a facility to do effectively.”
Stefanowski said he would have handled the situation differently.
"We should have prepared better,” he said. “There were 'step-down' facilities all over the place. We knew this thing was coming. We had months to prepare."
But one Democratic state lawmaker, who’s also a pulmonologist, said nursing homes were the only viable option at the time.
"If the hospitals are filling up to the point that the ICU, the emergency room, the recovery units in the hospital, and literally the operating rooms are being used for vented patients, and you have no place to go, the patients are not well enough to go home,” said state Sen. Saud Anwar (D-South Windsor). "If everybody was recovering in the inpatient setting, we will -- would have had no room to take care of the people who were in the emergency departments, coming left and right."
At one point, Stefanowksi appeared to contradict the former commissioner. He criticized Lamont for locking down nursing homes, while Coleman-Mitchell attacked the governor for not doing it sooner.
An outside audit commissioned by Lamont, praised the state’s “commendable efforts,” but also criticized regulators for under-preparing nursing homes.
“Early efforts that focused on addressing the surge in demand for hospital resources hampered Connecticut’s preparedness and response to the COVID-19 outbreak in [long term care] facilities,” the report noted.
Coleman-Mitchell told reporters the Lamont administration has refused to provide e-mail and cellphone records to prove her allegations.
“The office of the governor has taken all steps to comply with the [Freedom of Information Act] request and the matter is now between the Office of the Attorney General and the attorneys for Ms. Coleman Mitchell to agree on the scope of the request,” said Lamont spokesman Anthony Anthony.
At the time, the governor characterized Coleman-Mitchell's dismissal as change in direction as the state re-opened.
"May 20 was always a pivot point for us,” Lamont said in May 2020. “And we knew that we were moving from simply managing the pandemic, to figuring out public health long-term as part of our re-opening strategy. And I just had to make a decision."
Lamont initially replaced Coleman-Mitchell with Dr. Deidre Gifford, and later with current DPH commissioner Dr. Manisha Juthani.
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, Coleman-Mitchell had a rocky tenure as public health commissioner. Lamont and top lawmakers publicly clashed with her over religious exemptions for childhood vaccines, and whether to release school-by-school vaccination rates.
In court filings, DPH denied Coleman-Mitchell’s allegations, and recently told a judge, “At this time, DPH is not interested in settlement.”