In one last jab at Lamont in CT governor race, Stefanowski appears with fired health commissioner

Photo of Julia Bergman

With five days to go until Election Day, Bob Stefanowksi, Republican candidate for governor, made a last-ditch effort to criticize Gov. Ned Lamont and his leadership, convening a press conference with Lamont’s former public health commissioner who has accused the governor and his administration of discriminatory treatment.

Renee Coleman-Mitchell, who is Black, was fired abruptly in May 2020, about two months into the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On Thursday, she appeared outside the state Capitol with Stefanowski as he lobbed critique-after-critique at Lamont over the state’s COVID-19 policies, particularly in nursing homes, and the alleged mistreatment of members of his administration. 

"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 charged. "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 in Connecticut.”

Coleman-Mitchell said she sounded the alarm in late February or early March, before Connecticut reported its first COVID-19 case, that nursing homes could be particularly susceptible to the virus, urging the governor to restrict visitation and test all staff members – proposals that ultimately became policy weeks later under the governor's executive authority.

But those warnings were dismissed by Lamont and high-level members of his administration, Coleman-Mitchell said, who has repeatedly said she was removed from the decision-making process early on. The governor's office has never provided a detailed explanation of why Coleman-Mitchell was fired and has declined comment on her federal lawsuit, alleging a violation of her civil rights, filed in May 2022.

In a written statement issued Thursday, the state's Department of Public Health said it has advised nursing homes on "proper cohorting of COVID positive residents” throughout the pandemic, with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Protection, so that infected residents are isolated from asymptomatic residents.

"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," the statement says. "Covid Recovery Facilities also accepted COVID positive residents from nursing homes when cohorting was too difficult for a facility to do effectively."

The recovery facilities were established in empty nursing homes and in selected nursing homes with entire vacant wings, according to DPH's statement. The facilities closed in 2021 as the vaccine helped to keep down rates of infection, and nursing homes became better at cohorting COVID positive residents.

Thirteen percent of all skilled care nursing home residents in Connecticut, about 2,800 people, died with COVID-19 in the early months of the pandemic. A report by Mathematica, the New Jersey company hired by the state to conduct an independent investigation into its pandemic response in nursing homes, found that experts from long-term care facilities were “somewhat neglected” as the state planned for the virus, focusing more on the availability to hospital beds and procuring ventilators. But state officials have pushed back against that conclusion

Lamont’s record on COVID became a flash point in this week's second and final gubernatorial debate with Stefanowski accusing the governor of sending infected elderly into nursing homes, a claim Lamont called a lie.

Coleman-Mitchell sat at Stefanowski’s table during the debate and the Republican offered to have her speak to reporters. She said that infected nursing home residents mingled with non-infected patients, and that she warned against it to no avail. She said Thursday that she chose to go public with her criticism now – appearing at a press conference less than a week before Election Day with her former boss’ political rival – because the governor promised her a letter of recommendation and she felt it best to keep quiet until that materialized, but it never did.

The governor has generally received high marks on Connecticut’s handling of the pandemic. He has stressed the lack of knowledge, support, and access to resources during the early months of the pandemic. He has said few if any COVID-infected patients were co-located with healthy residents, and that empty buildings and empty wings were used to segregate them. But the governor has admitted it was a learning process and that personal protective equipment and other aid promised by the Trump administration in Washington, never materialized.

"All these weasel words, right," Stefanowski said at Thursday's press conference. "‘Well, we did it, but we put them in wings of the nursing units that were closed. Well, we did have a shortage of nurses, and they were doing both, but they changed their gowns, and they changed their masks.’ Come on. The point is why in the world would you ever put any infected COVID patient into the most susceptible population?"

Asked what he would've done differently, Stefanowski said he would've directed hospitals to send nursing home residents to step-down facilities or the make-shift hospitals that the state set up early in the pandemic. Though it's not clear that the governor would have the authority to order nursing home patients to specific locations.

Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, a pulmonologist, who was dispatched by Democrats to provide a rebuttal to Stefanowki's claims, said those make-shift facilities, that were never ultimately used by the state, would not have been suitable for elderly patients given the level of nursing care and oxygen needed. 

A spokesperson for Lamont's re-election campaign noted in a written statement Thursday that experts both in Connecticut and nationally have "hailed" the governor's response to the pandemic as "one of the nation's safest and swiftest."

"Stefanowski can spend the final days of the campaign at war with the facts, but voters remember the difference Governor Lamont’s strong leadership made in an unprecedented crisis," Onotse Omoyeni, Lamont campaign spokeswoman, said.