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As Connecticut hospitalizations jump, Lamont rolls out digital vaccine card instead of mandates

Conn. Gov. Ned Lamont
Jessica Hill

Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont is defending a digital vaccine card system that the state started to roll out over the weekend. This comes as the state records 100 new hospitalizations since Friday, one of the most intense weekends the state has experienced since last spring.

The system that went live Friday allows Connecticut residents to show their vaccination status using a cellphone app. The same day Connecticut Republicans called on the state to hold hearings about how consumer data and privacy will be protected using the system.

Lamont said businesses and restaurants can use the voluntary system to put in their own COVID-19 restrictions, if necessary. He does not want to issue state mandates to stem a winter wave of the virus.

“I can pass a lot of laws and mandates and restrictions, but they're only effective when people follow them,” Lamont said. “So that's why I like to give that local district discretion and they know their populations the best. And they're the ones responsible for enforcing it.”

Indoor businesses and venues in New York without vaccination policies are supposed to require customers to wear masks. New York City restaurant-goers are also required to show their vaccination status. Governor Kathy Hochul said she imposed these mandates in response to the rise in hospitalizations statewide.

In Connecticut, there are about 7,500 hospital beds in the state. Lamont said most of the capacity issues are unrelated to the virus. The state has over 830 COVID-19-related hospitalizations.

“We were the most vaccinated, least infected state in the country going back a couple of months. What happened?” Lamont asked. “I thought vaccinations meant we were bulletproof. Well, not quite. You can still get infected.”

In response, the state is also making it easier for nurses and other healthcare workers to relieve stressed hospital staff in Connecticut. Officials are also relaxing testing requirements for educators and other non-healthcare, mandated workers to open space for residents during the holiday season.

Otherwise, Lamont said he finds vaccine and mask mandates ineffective at this point of the pandemic. The state requires unvaccinated people to be masked indoors, and worn by everyone in healthcare facilities, public and private transit, correctional facilities, schools and childcare centers. But much of the enforcement is up to local cities and towns.

“I was looking at Governor Hochul down in New York. And she mandated proof of vaccination status and masking requirements. And Long Island said ‘we're not going to enforce that,’” he said, criticizing a mask mandate for New Yorkers that went into effect last week. “You've got to work with the local municipalities. You've got to work with local businesses and restaurants, since they're the ones who are going to be enforcing it.”

The digital cards, also known as “SMART Health Cards,” can be accessed on the state health department website. It uses CT WiZ, Connecticut’s immunization information system, to confirm a person’s vaccination status.

The SMART Health Cards display a QR code that upon being scanned will confirm the smartphone user’s vaccination status. The QR code is based on a standard that has already been adopted by many states and countries, including New York, California and Canada. Massachusetts, Rhode Island and several other states are expected to launch programs soon using this standard.

Lamont said the digital cards are more resistant to forgery than the paper cards issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and they can also be easily obtained if someone loses their paper card and needs to replace it.

“The SMART Health Card is purely optional and voluntary," he said. “It’s an added convenience and it's secure. That information by law, by contract, cannot be sold and cannot be dispersed.”

Still, House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora blamed Lamont on Friday for making “drastic decisions” to implement the digital vaccine card without the Legislature.

“COVID is here to stay,” Candelora said. “It is something that we as a government need to be able to change the way we do business and make sure that the highest levels of transparency are there So while I recognize a no bid contract might be necessary in order to effectuate goals that we want to achieve and mitigating COVID, the public has a right to know what that contract is.”

Candelora said he is concerned that data about the general consumer habits of Connecticut residents can be sold to the highest bidder. However, under the vendor contract, the state owns the data collected and mandates no transfer of personal information. He said that the contract is not as transparent and accessible to residents as similar partnerships with vendors in other states, including New Hampshire and New York.

Lamont called those concerned “made up.” He said the state just wants to give restaurants and stores the tools they need to determine what restrictions to put in place themselves.

“If you want people going back to the restaurants, they've got to feel safe,” Lamont said. “One way to make them feel safe is when you go into a restaurant and sit down, probably the person next to you, you feel confident that they have been vaccinated.”

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.