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‘Airtight agreement’ to get COVID-19 tests to CT falls apart Lamont blames 'misrepresentation' for mix-up

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A worker unloads a pallet of N95 masks in East Hartford on Thursday evening. The masks were brought from a warehouse in New Britain.

A promised order of 1.5 million COVID-19 home test kits that was supposed to be on its way to Connecticut is not coming, Gov. Ned Lamont said Thursday evening.

Lamont earlier this week told municipalities to prepare for the arrival of the rapid-test kits as early as Thursday. Many towns scheduled distributions based on the governor’s assurances, only to have to cancel them as it became clear no tests were arriving.

The state had an “airtight agreement” with a vendor who sent officials pictures of the supplies, Lamont said. State officials repeatedly said they had a purchase order with a wholesaler, and that since the kits were never delivered, no state money was paid to anyone.

“We absolutely had a contract, and we issued a purchase order off of the contract,” Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Manisha Juthani said. “We were given pictures and confirmation that the product was being loaded and on the way — those were misrepresented to us. So we did everything by the book. The way you would expect for the state to proceed with a purchase of this magnitude. Things were misrepresented to us.”

Lamont said that the state has received some test kits and are “scouring the globe” right now for more.

“It is complicated. It’s a little like it was for the masks back a year and a half ago. It’s not like Federal Express where they say it’s going to be delivered at 10 o’clock the next morning and if is not there, you get your money back,” Lamont said. “It’s more like surge pricing. If you’ve ever done Uber and Lyft where you think you’ve got a deal on, at the last moment that truck goes someplace else.”

State was working with Glastonbury company to secure the test kits

The wholesaler the state was working with on the deal, Jack Rubenstein CT LLC of Glastonbury, had done business with the state previously and had helped the state procure millions of N95 masks at the beginning of the pandemic. In the last two years, the state paid the company nearly $15 million to procure PPE.

The state signed an $18.5 million purchase order with the Glastonbury company on Dec. 26. The agreement called for the wholesaler to deliver 1.5 million at home testing kits made by iHealth for the state, according to a purchase order.

Jack Rubenstein CT LLC is owned by Jeffrey Barlow. In brief phone conversation with the CT Mirror on Thursday, Barlow said he couldn’t talk about the contract because he was busy.

“I’m in the middle of working on supply chain stuff right now,” Barlow said, adding he didn’t know yet when any kits would arrive in Connecticut, before politely saying he had to hang up.

The state hasn’t paid Barlow any of the $18.5 million yet, according to state comptroller records.

In a conference call with local officials on Wednesday, Juthani told them the delay was “due to shipping and warehouse delays that are really outside of the control of the state of Connecticut” and as “everybody knows, there has been challenges with plane travel throughout this country, particularly during just the last week.”

When the pandemic hit, Barlow registered his company as a vendor for the state of Connecticut and pivoted from his regular business of importing consumer electronics from China and selling them wholesale here in the United States to securing PPE.

In an article in a Tulane University alumni magazine, Barlow said he used his connections developed in China over the previous 10 years to get the hard-to-find masks.

“It definitely was a learning curve for me. You have to learn quickly to listen and talk to people and try to understand both the customer side and the supplier side and learn about the different products and levels,” Barlow told the Tulane publication.

“When you’re placing orders of millions of units at a time, you want to make sure you’re getting the right product for what the customers require,” he said.

Municipal leaders angry

The constantly moving target on when or if the kits would arrive frustrated many municipal leaders upset with the whole handling of the distribution by the Lamont team.

Lamont held a virtual meeting with all municipal leaders on Monday to tell them about the kits and to prepare to distribute them, but that was only a half hour or so before he announced it to the public and said they would be distributed in their local towns as early as Thursday.

The announcement and tight deadline left town officials scurrying during a holiday week to find locations to distribute the kits, line up personnel to work the sites and determine who was going to get them, all while fielding hundreds of phone calls from residents asking when the tests would be arriving, how many they could get and a variety of other questions.

Many had set up distribution sites for Thursday. Many who have scheduled them for Friday have already canceled as well.

“Like everything else rolled out by the State, with no plan and dumped into our municipal laps to try and figure it out, they change the rules by the hour we are working tirelessly as your elected officials to try and get you the most accurate information regarding test kits and N95 mask distribution,” Harwinton First Selectmen Michael Criss wrote on the town website as he announced the cancellation of the town’s giveaway.

“We are doing the best we can to sort through mountains of information, hours or meetings and keep the information as clear and concise as possible, so please share the information and keep politics out of it,” he said.

“We regret to inform you that we will not be distributing home test kits and masks tomorrow as originally planned,” South Windsor Town Manager Michael Maniscalco said.

“While we have developed a comprehensive distribution plan, it is now paused indefinitely. Unfortunately, the test kits that were promised by the State of Connecticut have not arrived. Once we are confident, the Town of South Windsor will receive test kits we will share further information about the distribution.”

Asked if he would have done anything differently this week, Lamont said, “I think we got a little ahead of ourselves, to tell you the truth, on Monday. Yeah, we all thought the tests are in the plane, we thought they’re here … we certainly wanted to give our municipalities a little bit of time for planning.”

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