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As COVID-19 surge slows, Lamont addresses challenges with testing and nursing homes

Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public

Statewide COVID-19 activity continues to decline, a trend that state officials say makes them hopeful for the next of couple weeks of the pandemic.

Connecticut’s daily test positivity rate has dropped to 13.29%, according to new data from the Department of Public Health. That’s down from a high of 24.55% less than two weeks ago.

Some 1,733 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, a decrease of 72 patients from the day before.

“That’s opening up beds, and, by the way, we have a lot more nurses returning to work than having to quarantine,” Gov. Ned Lamont said during a briefing Thursday. “So, we’re also, I think, beginning to balance supply and demand. That’s incredibly positive.”

However, an additional 241 people have died from the coronavirus in the past week.

Still, Dr. Scott Gottlieb said the other improving trends make him optimistic that Connecticut is on the other side of the omicron variant surge. Gottlieb is the former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. He and his family live in Westport.

“But we’re not through this by any means quite yet,” he said. “The pressure on the health care system is going to be a lagging issue. The health care system is going to continue to accrue cases even as they have discharges.”

More at-home test kits, new testing partners at Sema4 sites

The state has distributed about 3.1 million at-home COVID-19 test kits. Josh Geballe, chief operating officer, said priority in that distribution has shifted to K-12 schools, early childhood centers, faith-based organizations, Foodshare and other organizations that serve at-risk populations.

Geballe said about 1 million tests have been distributed to municipalities across the state.

Health experts said demand for in-person testing continues to remain high. The state is working on replacements for its contracted testing partner, Sema4, which oversees 15 of 23 state-sponsored testing sites.

The company will stop providing testing at the end of the month.

“Each of those sites has been paired with a new testing partner who is going to be ready to step in and take that over, and we don’t expect any disruptions,” Geballe said.

More than one company will replace Sema4 – Geballe declined to provide names of the new testing partners until contracts are finalized.

Legislature faces deadline for Lamont’s expiring executive orders

Lamont’s executive orders expire on Feb. 15, including a requirement that all state employees get vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing.

The governor said the legislature must decide whether to adopt some of his orders into law, with or without modifications, or extend his emergency powers an additional 30 or 60 days.

Lamont met with legislative leaders this week and proposed a list of 11 executive orders on COVID-19 pandemic mandates that he would like to see continued. The state employee vaccine mandate is not among them.

“So right now, they and teachers, like everyone else, if you’re feeling symptomatic, get a test,” he said, “but no more mandate.”

Geballe elaborated and said when the mandate originally took effect, vaccination rates among state employees rose about 10% to 15%, with others complying by opting into a testing requirement. But those numbers have since flattened.

“At this point, the significant administrative burden on our agencies and on the schools to administer that ongoing weekly testing regimen, to chase the people who are chronically late getting their test results in, it’s run its course,” he said, “it’s not a sufficient value anymore, so we’re going to let that expire as we get to the 15th.”

However, Geballe said state officials are working with the Department of Correction to potentially continue routine testing, “given the particularly high-risk profile of those settings, both with staff and offenders as well.”

About two-thirds of DOC staff is fully vaccinated, he said, but the department has the lowest vaccination rate among state agencies.

Other executive orders on Lamont’s list to the legislature relate to requirements at long-term care facilities, purchasing powers and mask mandates.

“Right now, we have masks for kids in school, who are less likely to be vaccinated,” Lamont said. “I think we should continue that a little bit longer, but I say to the legislature, what say you?”

New visitor vaccine and testing requirements at nursing homes 

In what Lamont said he hopes is his last executive order before Feb. 15, the governor is requiring that visitors at nursing homes either provide proof of full COVID-19 vaccination or provide a negative test result in order to enter a facility.

“It’s often people coming in from the outside to see a loved one, walking into the nursing home, that’s sometimes where you see some spread and infection,” he said.

The requirements take effect Saturday. The state is distributing 50,000 rapid antigen tests to nursing homes to be used for visitors seeking a negative test result before seeing a loved one.

Lamont said the executive order is included on his list to legislators.

A new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Some public health experts say the waning of the latest surge in the pandemic is promising for the future. Gottlieb said by next month, there could be a clearer picture of what, or when, the end to the pandemic might look like.

“Now there seems to be more of a consensus building that this omicron wave may well be the last major wave of infection and this may become the dominant lineage as we go forward,” he said, “and we’re going to be heading into more of an endemic picture as we get later into this year, but that’s not a forgone conclusion at this point.”

DPH Commissioner Dr. Manisha Juthani shared in that cautious optimism that the virus that causes COVID-19 will eventually become endemic, or part of the regular seasonal circulation of respiratory diseases.

“I think what people have to remember about that is, regardless, we are learning to live with COVID,” she said. “We have so many tools with us now, and I do suspect we will see surges every wintertime and that we have to be prepared for that.”

However, nothing is for certain, Juthani said, as the virus and its variants have had surprising moments over the last 21 months.

“I am hopeful that this summer is going to look better, that we will get a little bit of a reprieve. That is my hope,” she said. “Last summer, the delta variant came and sort of interrupted that hope.”

Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.

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