Officials Urge Caution, but No Delays to Reopening, as COVID Cases Jump across Southeast Connecticut

COVID positivity rates in southeast Connecticut have grown significantly this week, according to data from state and local health departments. 

According to Ledge Light Health Department, which encompasses East Lyme, Groton, Ledyard, Lyme, New London, North Stonington, Old Lyme, Stonington, and Waterford, the region has confirmed 154 new COVID cases this week, the largest increase since April. Last week, the region confirmed 60 new cases. 

In New London County, the number of COVID cases has increased from 1,882 to 2,126 over the course of the week, a 13 percent jump. The number of deaths increased by two, from 87 to 89. 

COVID cases have also been on the increase statewide. In a press briefing on Thursday, Gov. Ned Lamont said that the positivity rates for Connecticut have remained at nearly two percent for three days in a row. The rate dropped to 1.4 percent on Friday. 

Lamont urged people to be cautious. “We’re not out of the woods,” he said. “We need to be very diligent about these flare-ups.” 

But Lamont said that he does not plan to delay the move to phase three of the state’s reopening plan, which is scheduled to take place on October 8. 

Norwich

According to a statement released by the state Department of Health, the city of Norwich reported 84 new cases between September 13-26, and has the highest positivity rate in the state, at 24 individuals testing positive per 100,000 residents.

The department recommended that residents of Norwich limit trips outside and avoid large outdoor gatherings. The state Department of Health also sent in a rapid response team on Thursday and is providing free coronavirus testing in the area.

State Rep. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said she had been asking the state to send in rapid response teams for the last few weeks, after a COVID outbreak in the Three Rivers nursing home led the state to close the facility on September 16. 

Osten said the outbreak was not connected to any one entity, schools or nursing homes, but was “a scattershot” of the city. 

Osten also said that she doesn’t believe it is necessary to push back the move to phase three. She also said, however, that it is critical for people to keep wearing masks and take safety precautions. 

Nursing Homes

The Harrington Court nursing home in Colchester also reported an outbreak on Thursday in which 45 residents and 11 staff members tested positive for COVID-19. 

Dr. Richard Feifer, Chief Medical Officer at Genesis Physician Services, the company that owns Harrington Court, said the outbreak most likely started with a patient who was transferred into Harrington Court’s observation unit from a local hospital. 

Feifer said the facility is screening patients for symptoms three times daily and restricting visitors. 

The outbreak comes on the heels of a report released by the New Jersey-based data-collection firm Mathematica on Thursday afternoon that found that the state Department of Health’s current emergency response plans remained insufficient.

The report recommended nursing homes hire a full-time infection preventionist and increase minimum staffing and testing frequency. It suggested that the state include nursing homes in its emergency response planning, that it redeploy furloughed licensed health care workers to nursing homes and make nursing home residents a priority for an eventual COVID vaccine. 

The report also pointed out the high rates of depression and decreased well-being that has been prevalent among nursing home residents since the start of the pandemic. On Monday, Connecticut’s Department of Public Health issued new guidelines allowing nursing homes to have in-person visitors, in accordance with the report’s recommendations. 

At the end of July, there were a total of 3,198 COVID-related deaths in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, accounting for 72 percent of the total number of statewide deaths from the virus.

Schools

Norwich public schools and the Norwich Free Academy have shifted to remote learning for two weeks as the number of cases in the city have rapidly increased. 

“To date, the transmission of COVID-19 is not occurring in our schools. This is a community spread issue,” Kristen Stringfellow, the superintendent of Norwich schools, wrote in a letter to parents on October 1. 

According to the school district website, three students and staff in district schools have tested positive for COVID, two at elementary schools and one in a preschool program. 

In a letter to school superintendents, Ledge Light Health District Director Stephen Mansfield said that the likelihood for Norwich students who attend schools in other districts to spread the virus there is low.

As of Friday morning, two schools in East Lyme have reported COVID cases. The district discovered on Thursday evening that a member of the East Lyme Middle School tested positive, according to a letter issued by East Lyme Superintendent Jeffery Newton. The school was closed Friday. 

Newton told Connecticut Examiner that a second case was discovered early Friday morning at the Niantic Center School. Students were dismissed at 12:35 pm. In a letter to parents, Newton said that next week’s schedule would be determined after the local health department completed contact tracing. 

East Lyme Schools are operating in a hybrid model, with 280 of their 2,700 students opting for entirely remote learning. Newton told CT Examiner that as of now, there are no plans to shift to a different form of learning, and no anticipated changes to safety protocol. 

Ian Neviaser, Superintendent of Lyme-Old Lyme schools, said that based on conversations with the Ledge Light Health District, they planned to continue with in-person instruction. Lyme-Old Lyme schools serve 1299 students across five schools, but have not reported any cases of COVID since students returned for the fall 

Neviaser said he has not heard concerns from parents or staff members.

“What I’ve heard from most people is how overjoyed they are to be back in school,” he said.  

Should COVID-positive cases appear in the district, he said, obviously things would change. But he said that there’s no clear metric for when the school would transition. 

“There is no line in the sand for when we need to adjust,” he said.

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