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Management in Practice

Leading through COVID: Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont

A year into his term as governor of Connecticut, Ned Lamont ’80 found himself with a new agenda: responding to the state’s outbreak of COVID-19, one of the first and most severe in the country. We talked with him about the partnerships he formed to bring down Connecticut’s infection rate and the risks that lie ahead.

When did you first start recognizing that the COVID situation was going to be a crisis beyond anything we had seen before?

A lot earlier than the White House. We could look over at Wuhan, we could look over to Seattle, and then some stuff started happening in New Rochelle, right across the Connecticut border there in Westchester. And then one day there was a nurse from Westchester who was working at Danbury Hospital who was our first COVID infection. That was just a screaming wakeup call that this was not overseas anymore; this was in our backyard. Fortunately, I had already reached out to all the governors in our region, particularly Andrew Cuomo [of New York]. We had talked about transportation and cybersecurity and all the ways that a state border is sort of artificial, but COVID turbocharged that relationship, because the fire was raging on both sides of our border and we had to work together to put it out.

How did you start making decisions about how strongly to act in the early days when there was no real model?

Look, I had a telecommunications company; I couldn’t even spell “coronavirus.” You’ve got to know what you don’t know, and so I went for the best scientific minds I could find. I found Albert Ko [of the Yale School of Public Health] and a lot of the leading epidemiologists and bioscience and healthcare folks right here in Connecticut. They put together the team that was able to inform us on the nature of this virus and how incredibly infectious it is.

Even before that, I reached out to the hospitals about it, because you could see what was going on in New Rochelle and Queens where the hospitals were getting overwhelmed early on. And because it hit them there a couple weeks before Connecticut, we had a little bit of a head start. Let’s face it, Connecticut and the hospitals had been suing each other before I became governor; that was not a great relationship, to put it mildly. We got that solved, the hospitals came to the table, and they were great partners for us, and that was invaluable. The Stamford Hospital was almost overwhelmed. Hartford Hospital was able to come down with the nurses, the gowns and masks, and the ventilators, and the things they needed—and then vice versa a few months later.

The guy I had leading the effort was an SOM graduate named Josh Geballe. Josh spent most of his career at IBM, and I brought him in because I was thinking about how we were going to upgrade systems in state government. But he took over what we were doing on our healthcare response. I had to make sure the business community understood what we were trying to do. Bars and restaurants were being closed because of the nature of the spread in places where there is close social interaction. Indra Nooyi, my classmate and former PepsiCo CEO, ended up as a co-chair of our reopening committee, because as soon as we closed things down we were already planning how to reopen. So she and Albert Ko from Yale really took the lead on the scientific and the business side.

How did you keep so many different constituencies informed and, hopefully, motivated to work together on this?

“Our reopen committee included the scientists and the big business leaders that we needed to help us, and I’ve tried to do that throughout state government—get a wider variety of people at the table.”

You have no idea what is going to be thrown at you in state government. I was ready for a cyberattack; it ended up being a COVID attack. At the same time, you’ve got a state that hasn’t created a new job in 30 years, so I was planning in terms of how to make our state more competitive. But that’s what makes the job the most exciting in my career—the broad nature of the incoming issues and how you respond to them. In each case, we’ve always been a bit of an ecosystem up here in Hartford and always look within this ecosystem for the answers, and I’ve tried to broaden that. Our reopen committee included the scientists and the big business leaders that we needed to help us, and I’ve tried to do that throughout state government—get a wider variety of people at the table. In particular, the business community has not been at the table in a long time and that was one of the things I had to change if we were going to change the economics of the state.

Connecticut has had one of the lowest rates of positive COVID tests for a while now. How do you feel about where we are at the moment, after coming through such a challenge in the spring and early summer?

We’re not out of the woods. You know what makes me the most nervous? Our universities, because our universities are bringing in the best and brightest from all over the country and all over the world. Our K through 12 is a little easier, because everybody is from a community where there’s a 1% infection rate, but when you are bringing in folks from Georgia, Florida, Texas, California—those are places that have an infection rate, right now, 10 times ours. That’s why I say we’re not out of the woods. That’s a risk I have to look at, the possibility we have a flareup. You’ve seen that at USC and Alabama and Notre Dame, so that is what we’re following very closely right now.

And then we’ve got the next flu season that comes up in November. Every time people are protesting around the governor’s residence saying, “reopen Connecticut,” “liberate Connecticut,” “you’re a dictator, Lamont,” I try to remind people this is no time to relax your guard. This is a time to be serious. Make sure we get through this year until, hopefully, we have a vaccine or at least some really effective therapies, and a lot easier testing. Yale has been a leader in their testing, which I’m really appreciative of.

Do you feel like you can predict what is going to happen at all or do you just need to be ready for whatever comes and try to adjust?

“The state has hoped for the best and prepared for the worst. If we get hit again, I’m not waiting for some nonexistent national stockpile. I’ve got my stockpile in a big warehouse in New Britain.”

Let’s face it, this virus is absolutely unpredictable. Who would have thought how contagious it was, first of all? We learned that fast. Fortunately, I could look overseas and get a little bit of an indication on that. Then, who would have thought that there would be a second wave as we found out in places like Louisiana? We never cease to be surprised, but I can tell you what the state has done is hope for the best and prepare for the worst. If we get hit again, I’m not waiting for Washington, D.C., and some nonexistent national stockpile. I’ve got my stockpile in a big warehouse in New Britain. We’ve got the masks, we’ve got the monitors, we’ve got the gowns. We’ve got a lot more testing capacity than we had five months ago. You are never totally ready for the unexpected, but I think we are as ready as we can be.

The COVID crisis has exposed a lot of inequalities in education and healthcare across the country, and in Connecticut as well. Is that something you are able to focus attention on while continuing to deal with all the other issues that are arising with the pandemic?

Yes, absolutely. First of all, the pandemic helped expose the racial disparities in healthcare. Black and brown people, especially in urban communities, are much more likely to be infected, much more likely to suffer complications, and much more likely to have a preexisting condition. We have doubled down there in terms of testing and all the response we needed to keep these communities as safe as we could. A lot of people are hesitant: I don’t want to get tested if that will mean I can’t go to work, or if I’m Hispanic, I worry about ICE. We had to work really hard to make these communities feel that we had their health, the health of their families, and the health of their communities first and foremost in terms of what we were trying to do.

I’m working my heart out to get the schools open. I just figure if a state with a 1% infection rate can’t open its schools, nobody can. And you could potentially save the lost year of education. A lot of our suburban schools are opening, but some of our urban schools, including New Haven, don’t want to open right now—they want to just do distance learning. That leaves a lot of kids behind, so it breaks my heart.

Are there things you are doing now to think about leaving the state and the community better prepared for another crisis?

I think we have a pretty good playbook now. I’ve been in office now for a year and a half. I know most of the players. Six months ago, it was a little earlier in the game. With the healthcare, I think we know pretty much how to do it.

I’m also thinking about Connecticut in a post-COVID world. In the midst of this storm, there are some silver linings. [Before COVID] the millennials didn’t look at a suburban, small-town community. That was very out of fashion, and they wanted to be in one of the big metropolitan centers where all the growth was. I think a lot of these folks are taking a second look at that right now. That plays to Connecticut’s strengths. You can get housing at a lot less cost, you can be in New York City twice a week, you don’t have to be there five days a week. We’re building out 5G; we’re building out Wi-Fi in our town centers to make them a lot more accommodating, a lot more welcoming to young people. I think these are all reasons that Connecticut is very much in play right now.

Are there other leadership lessons you take out of this experience?

“When we knew something, we said what we knew and when we didn’t know something, we said, we’re trying to find out.”

If you are a businessperson and you come into state government and think, I’m going to read people the riot act and I’m going to order people around, that’s not the way it works. You are a persuader in chief. I can’t just order you to wear a mask or I’m going to fine you $5,000. You need to be clear about what you are doing, explain to people why you are doing it, and see if you can bring them along.

I’ve learned that you cannot overcommunicate in a crisis. When COVID was ramping up, our internet was jammed, our 211 emergency number. People were just scared out of their wits, and I was with them, actually. But we went on every afternoon at four o’clock [to brief the public] and I got the very best people I could. When we knew something, we said what we knew and when we didn’t know something, we said, we’re trying to find out. I know everybody wants a nice black-and-white answer, and there weren’t always black-and-white answers. But the people of Connecticut, I think we included them almost as part of the decision-making process, and that has worked pretty well for us.