Cities Hardest Hit By Coronavirus Still Struggle To Grow Testing | Connecticut Public Radio
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Cities Hardest Hit By Coronavirus Still Struggle To Grow Testing

May 28, 2020

The push to get more people screened for the novel coronavirus continued Thursday, as state and federal officials converged outside a community center in Hartford to promote a new mobile COVID-19 testing unit.

Connecticut has significantly expanded its testing capacity in recent weeks, but the state has struggled to increase the number of residents tested in communities hardest hit by COVID-19.

This post has been updated.

Statewide testing numbers have been trending up, as the state provides more targeted testing to nursing homes and other high-risk populations. Lab capacity to process those tests has expanded, testing reagents have become more widely available and the state recently met a self-established goal prior to the May 20 reopening date: administering 42,000 weekly tests. 

But recent data also show a less encouraging trend: In the state’s hardest-hit cities, the number of people getting tested for COVID-19 has struggled to grow.

Since May 19, COVID-19 tests conducted each day have declined or remained relatively flat in cities like Bridgeport, Hartford and Stamford. In Bridgeport, which has the most confirmed cases statewide, a rolling three-day average showed that around 200 people were getting tested each day, according to the latest state statistics. Immediate efforts to reach the city of Bridgeport were not successful.

In Stamford, the city with the state’s most COVID-19 deaths, that number was fewer than 70 daily tests. 

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said Thursday the number of residents tested in his city doubled over the last two weeks. 

The most recent state data indicate about 300 people are getting tested in Hartford each day. And while the city now has nine permanent testing sites, Bronin acknowledged many more people need to get tested for coronavirus.

“We want everybody to get tested,” Bronin said. “It is critical to a successful reopening that we dramatically expand the number of tests that are administered.”

Gov. Ned Lamont has said he wants the state running about 100,000 tests per week by June 20, the tentative date targeted for the next phase of Connecticut’s reopening. 

During Thursday’s news conference outside the Parker Memorial Community Center in Hartford, the governor said he’d consider postponing that date if testing wasn’t growing at a pace to meet that goal. 

“We’d certainly take a look at that,” Lamont said. “It fell off a little bit over Memorial Day weekend, for reasons you can probably understand.”

Lamont and Bronin were joined by several other officials to announce the launch of a mobile COVID-19 testing program by Trinity Health of New England and Charter Oak Health Center. 

The governor’s office said the program will provide free COVID-19 testing in 19 locations in the coming weeks, including Hartford, East Hartford, Bloomfield and Windsor.

“There’s no reason not to get tested,” Bronin said. “If you’ve got family members at home who you love, if you’ve got elderly in your life … if you’re working, if you’re just going out to the grocery store, get tested. Because it’s not just about you.”

As of Thursday afternoon, the state reported 271 new coronavirus cases and additional 5,756 tests. Around 650 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, and the state reported 23 more COVID-19-related deaths, bringing the overall number of people killed due to virus complications to 3,826. 

Data on infections and deaths in nursing homes and assisted living facilities were not released Thursday afternoon, as previously scheduled.

That report “is being delayed one day to provide some more time to finalize the data,” David Bednarz, a spokesperson for the governor, said in an email.

Tribal Casinos To Reopen June 1, But Lamont Says It’s Still Too Early

Lamont said representatives from his administration have visited both Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in advance of tribal plans to open both casinos on June 1.

The governor acknowledged Thursday that tribes’ decisions to close two months ago may have contributed to relatively low rates of infection in eastern Connecticut. 

“We have some of the lowest infection rates, not just in the state, but in the entire region, in eastern Connecticut, in part, thanks to the incredible sacrifice the tribes made,” Lamont said.

Both tribes are sovereign nations, which means they’re free to reopen their casinos on a timeline of their choosing. Casino officials have been pushing for a more aggressive reopening timeline from the state as their facilities hemorrhaged millions of dollars and thousands of employees lost their jobs.

Lamont has used the bully pulpit of his daily media briefings for weeks to urge the two tribes to keep the casinos closed while the state works to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

“I think the idea of opening up on June 1 is early,” Lamont said. “It’s earlier than Las Vegas. It’s earlier than any of our regional casinos … I’d like to have a little more time.”

Lamont said if the casinos do reopen on June 1, he’d like to see the tribes voluntarily adopt measures like capping crowd capacity and temporarily suspending the sale of alcohol.

Mohegan Sun said in a safety guide posted to its website that it’s made a number of safety-oriented changes, including temperature checks for new casino guests, closure of certain slot machines to promote social distancing, and revamps of heating and cooling systems to incorporate more outside air.

Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, said Thursday that Foxwoods has implemented various crowd control and safety measures to keep guests safe when the casino reopens in a few days.

About 5,000 employees at Foxwoods lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

Butler said the roughly 1,500 employees at Foxwoods who have been called back to work during the casino’s first phase of reopening appear eager to return, despite the continued spread of the novel coronavirus. 

“It will certainly help with the regional unemployment numbers, but we’re still far off from where we should be,” Butler said. “That gives you perspective of … what Foxwoods will be when it reopens. Think about that, we’re opening with about a third of the employees that we had.”

Butler said the casino has “burned through several million a week” due to the closure. He said the goal is to open and get patrons used to the new social distancing requirements.

“For us, it’s not about trying to take advantage of a situation economically,” Butler said. “We feel like we have put in the right procedures to do this and do this safely. And that’s why we’re opening.”

Unemployment Surge Produces Four Years Of Claims In Less Than Three Months

Labor officials continue to chip away at a monolith of unemployment claims, as Thursday’s federal labor report indicated 2.1 million more Americans filed for first-time unemployment assistance. 

Connecticut Department of Labor Commissioner Kurt Westby said Thursday his agency has paid out over $751 million in unemployment benefits since March. The state also has paid out $1.2 billion in additional federal benefits authorized by the CARES Act.

“We are very quickly disbursing a lot of money into the economy,” Westby said, adding that the processing time for applications in Connecticut has gone from around six weeks at the start of the pandemic to around one to two weeks today.

Westby said that his department has received more than 567,000 unemployment applications since March and that his office has processed over 536,000 claims. 

“That’s over four years of what we would call ‘normal’ application activity, done in two and a half months,” Westby said.

Westby said his department is working to beef up its care unit for residents who need assistance navigating the complex process of filing for state and federal unemployment benefits. 

The commissioner said he’s hiring 60 more staff members to provide customer service through a variety of new live support tools, including texting, chat boxes, email and phone calls in English and Spanish. 

The planned rollout for the response center is mid-July, Westby said.

There’s A Pandemic, And Businesses Need To Adapt To Ensure Employees Survive

The way businesses have operated for decades will have to change as they reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group’s community committee said Thursday.

During a roundtable call, the committee was joined by officials from the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, which represents front-line workers across Connecticut. 

Union leader Rochelle Palache said her group lost several members due to complications from coronavirus.

“If they are essential, let’s make sure that they are working in an environment that takes care of them,” Palache said. “That they don’t have to bring home a virus to their family members.”

SEIU 1199, which represents nursing home workers, said last week several of its union members died after contracting coronavirus and infecting family members. Union officials have repeatedly criticized the state for its lag in testing nursing home staff members and supplying them with adequate personal protective equipment, or PPE.

Palache said the past few months have shown that these workers must receive a living wage and affordable health insurance.

State Courthouses Partially Reopening In Middletown, Rockville and Litchfield

Chief Court Administrator Patrick Carroll said Wednesday the Connecticut Judicial Branch will resume partial operations in three courthouses starting Monday, June 8.

Those courthouses include the Middlesex Judicial District Courthouse in Middletown, Rockville’s Geographical Area No. 19 Courthouse and the Litchfield Judicial District Courthouse in Torrington. 

According to the judicial branch, 10 courts have remained open through the pandemic: the Supreme and Appellate courts; the Judicial District courthouses in Bridgeport, New Britain, New Haven and New London, and the Geographical Area Courthouses in Hartford (No. 14) and Waterbury (No. 4); and the juvenile courts in Hartford and Bridgeport. 

State officials said in a news release that, “beyond these locations and the three courthouses resuming partial operations effective June 8, all other courts will remain closed until further notice.”

Ali Warshavsky and Connecticut Public Radio’s John Henry Smith contributed to this report.