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As COVID-19 Cases Soar, State, Feds and Hospitals Look For Patient Overflow Sites

HARTFORD, CT - March 24, A mobile field hospital being erected by the Governor’s Foot and Horse Guard on the grounds of Saint Francis Hospital on March 24, 2020 in Hartford, Connecticut.
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public/NENC
A mobile field hospital is erected by the Governor’s Foot Guard and Horse Guard on the grounds of Saint Francis Hospital in Hartford on March 24, 2020. ";

Updated 7:30 p.m. 

The spread of coronavirus continued to accelerate in Connecticut Monday with an additional 578 confirmed COVID-19 cases reported in just 24 hours, another 113 people hospitalized and the death toll now listed  at 36.

“We’re running like hell and the virus is right behind us,” Gov. Ned Lamont said at his afternoon news briefing about Connecticut’s effort to deal with the surging impact of the pandemic in this state.

Experts predict the number of COVID-19 infections will double every 3 to 5 days; the peak of the pandemic in Connecticut is forecast for April 11-14.

Top hospital officials warned that short supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators needed for the sickest COVID-19 patients remain a major concern. Lamont said another shipment of PPE has arrived, including 11,000 N95 respirator masks, but that federal officials “rerouted” a shipment of respirators Connecticut was expecting because this state appeared to have a three-day supply and the equipment was needed in other states.

The governor said this state, which had cut back on COVID-19 testing because it was using up badly needed protective equipment for doctors, nurses and other hospital staff, is now “ramping up on testing again.” Lamont said about 2,700 additional coronavirus tests had been done since Sunday.

While Fairfield County continues to be the hardest hit section of the state in terms of COVID-19 confirmed patients, Lamont said “New Haven County is now catching up fast.” Fairfield County had 1,445 confirmed cases as of Monday, New Haven County reported 373 and Hartford County listed 330 confirmed coronavirus cases.

John Murphy, president and CEO of Nuvance Health — which includes hard-hit Norwalk Hospital — said the fact that some doctors and nurses have now come down with the coronavirus means “We have a thinner team” and that hospital staff are having to deal with a “degree of anxiety.”

“It isn’t a war zone but it is stressful,” Murphy said.

Hospitals across the state are urgently looking to expand capacity in advance of the continuing surge in the number of coronavirus patients and officials said they are planning to possibly shift confirmed virus patients from hospitals with dwindling numbers of available beds to hospitals elsewhere in the state.

Lamont also said Monday the state is looking to isolate or remove coronavirus patients from nursing homes to protect the vulnerable residents in those facilities. He said COVID-19 positive patients could be moved to vacant wings of the homes, or possibly moved to currently vacant nursing homes. The governor said state and local officials are “definitely de-congesting homeless shelters” to reduce the potential spread of the virus, including using hotel rooms to house some homeless people.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is reviewing sites in Connecticut, including the convention center, state universities and Mohegan Sun, that could hold overflow COVID-19 patients and health care workers and serve as potential auxiliary emergency departments.

Corps members are examining all UConn facilities, both in Storrs and at its other campuses, and those at Central, Western and Southern state universities, which are part of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system.

The governor’s spokesman said Monday the goal is to identify large spaces that can serve multiple functions.

“What are the locations where you can both house people, care for people and feed people?” said Max Reiss.

The 540,000-square-foot Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford and the Mohegan Sun complex in Uncasville, which has 300,000 square feet in the casinos alone, two hotels, and multiple restaurants, could potentially meet all three needs, Reiss said.

The army corps is also evaluating whether the state will need auxiliary emergency departments of non-coronavirus patients.

“People are still going to break their arms and get in car accidents,” Reiss said.

The effort to identify extra space for overflow patients comes as the state ramps up preparations for the expected surge in COVID-19 cases.

Fairfield County remains the region of the state with the most coronavirus cases, in part because of its proximity to New York, which has become the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said this weekend that Connecticut hospitals in the eastern part of the state may need to help overburdened Fairfield County hospitals by taking in some coronavirus cases. “But let us be clear,” Blumenthal told NPR, “this epidemic is likely to move in [eastern Connecticut’s] direction.”

Cities are also preparing, with Bridgeport planning to use a sports arena for overflow cases and Stamford setting up a new testing site.

In Bridgeport, Mayor Joseph Ganim announced plans to use Webster Bank Arena in that city as a possible alternate care site for coronavirus patients if there is an overflow from local hospitals.

Plans call for the arena to be equipped with 128 beds for ambulatory patients or those with mild symptoms, officials said. Medical equipment to outfit the arena was expected to arrive by Tuesday, March 31.

“In the past week, two of our residents succumbed to the virus and the number of positive coronavirus cases in Bridgeport tripled,” Ganim said in a prepared statement.

“We need to take as many proactive measures as we can to support government and healthcare officials by ensuring that emergency plans are in place to stay ahead of further devastating effects and support the healthcare system,” Ganim said.

Stamford Mayor David Martin said Monday that a new COVID-19 drive-through testing site is being established at Westhill High School. Also, the city is setting up a dedicated hotline for residents to schedule testing in Stamford.

The additional testing site is scheduled to open Tuesday, March 31, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Friday. Residents can call the Stamford TEST hotline at 1-883-508-8378.

Stamford already has three operating testing sites, all of which require residents to make an appointment.

Adult inmate and juvenile in detention test positive

The state also announced the first COVID-19 case in the state’s prison population. According to the Department of Correction, a 32-year-old inmate at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Uncasville has tested positive for the disease.

This is the second positive case at the Uncasville prison. A DOC employee who works at Corrigan-Radgowski has also tested positive.

DOC officials said the inmate who is sick with the coronavirus was isolated from the rest of the population when he started to show symptoms and was placed in isolation when the test came back positive.

Inmates from the same housing unit as the sick man are being isolated from the rest of the prison population for two weeks and monitored for symptoms.

Despite pressure from advocates, Lamont has so far refused to consider an early release plan for those inmates especially vulnerable to the disease, either because of age or underlying health conditions. Advocates are concerned that the virus will spread rapidly through prisons, along with nursing homes and other places with congregate settings.

Meanwhile, a child in the Hartford Juvenile Detention Center tested positive for COVID-19, officials announced late Sunday night.

That minor, who has not yet shown any symptoms of the virus, is the only youth who has tested positive the state’s two juvenile detention centers. Two other juveniles have tested negative.

The Judicial Branch has temporarily halted new admissions to the Hartford Juvenile Detention Center. Police departments across Connecticut are being told that any children taken into custody must be sent to the state’s other detention center for minors, located in Bridgeport.

Asked whether officials would close admissions to the Bridgeport Juvenile Detention Center if a child or staff member there tested positive for COVID-19, a Judicial Branch spokeswoman wrote in an email that, “We will consult with our Director of Medical Services in the event that a child or staff member tests positively for COVID-19, to determine the appropriate action.”

There are far fewer children being held in the centers since COVID-19 started spreading in Connecticut. In 2019, there were 83 children, on average, at the state’s two detention centers each day, according to data from the Judicial Branch.

As of last Thursday, there were 24 children in the Hartford Juvenile Detention Center and 40 in the Bridgeport facility.

“These are extraordinary circumstances,” said Gary Roberge, executive director of the Judicial Branch’s Court Support Services Division. “We’re exploring any and all possibilities to limit the number of kids in our detention facilities.”

State gets $5.4 million for voting security

Connecticut will receive nearly $5.4 million in federal funding to help with voting security in this year’s elections, according to Secretary of the State Denise Merrill and members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation.

The money will come from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) act recently approved by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump. The funding is to be used to improve the  safety and security of in-person voting at polling places, expand mail-in voting and protect the security of ballot counting, officials said.

The CARES Act, passed by Congress last week, allocates $400 million to states for the 2020 federal election cycle.

CT Mirror reporter Kelan Lyons contributed to this report.

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