The spread of COVID-19 in state prisons comes as Connecticut experienced its largest one-month reduction in prison population in history, according to the state Department of Correction.
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This post has been updated. Last month, the state’s overall prison population dipped below 12,000 for the first time in more than a quarter of a century, said Rollin Cook, DOC commissioner.
“I would not classify our efforts as a mass release,” Cook said. “However, the early-focused attention on releases is evident.”
The DOC said it is targeting older offenders and others considered high risk for medical reasons by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of Monday afternoon, the state’s overall prison population count had dropped by more than 700 since March 1 -- the date Cook called “the onset of COVID-19.”
Cook said it was unclear how many of the prisoners were released early.
“I don’t know the exact amount,” Cook said. “Each one of these folks [is] screened and ...already preapproved to be released to the community.”
Cook released the numbers the same day that protesters in cars lined up outside the Hartford residence of Gov. Ned Lamont, protesting the state’s policy of managing the virus in prisons.
Cook said the discretionary releases include placing people in halfway houses or returning them to their homes with a sponsor under the supervision of an agency parole officer.
“We will not approve discretionary release for anyone under my statutory authority without a home plan,” Cook said. “We understand the concerns COVID-19 creates for shelters.”
As of Monday morning, Cook said 30 DOC staff and 21 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19. Infected prisoners are being quarantined with other positive cases.
State Numbers Grow, But Lamont Sees ‘Reasonable Good News’
Lamont said Monday during his first virtual news briefing that an additional 1,200 people tested positive for COVID-19, but he again cautioned against reading too much into day-to-day positive case counts, saying they are tethered to daily variations in state testing capacity.
Instead, the governor expressed a degree of optimism about something counterintuitive: hospitalizations.
“Because the number of people hospitalized is not based upon just the number of people we’ve tested, but it’s based on everybody that’s infected out there,” Lamont said.
Lamont said day-by-day changes for hospitalization in Connecticut have remained relatively flat.
“I take this as [reasonably] good news,” Lamont said. “The situation could have been a lot more severe ... this gives us a lot more room to breathe.”
Monday’s new positives bring the total number of coronavirus cases in Connecticut to 6,906, with 206 deaths and more than 1,200 people hospitalized.
In hard-hit Fairfield county, hospitalizations jumped by about 40 people Monday. New Haven saw an increase of 12 patients hospitalized with COVID-19.
Lamont cautioned that even when hospitalizations eventually peak and begin to decline, the state may still have a long road to recovery. Testing will be key to getting people back to work, he said.
“It may not be the next day, it may be the next year,” Lamont said. “How can we thoughtfully get people back to work without having another wave of infections? A lot of that’s going to be in and around more broad-based testing.”
Connecticut Looks To Boost COVID-19 Testing Capacity
Sema4, a Stamford-based company, said Monday it will analyze thousands of coronavirus tests, joining a cohort that includes Jackson Labs of Farmington and other private labs.
The testing boost likely will be needed as the virus continues its surge across Fairfield and New Haven counties. As of Sunday, those two regions accounted for roughly 80% of Connecticut’s coronavirus-related hospitalizations.
Gov. Ned Lamont has repeatedly said he wants to build out Connecticut’s COVID-19 testing capacity.
Over the last week, the state averaged a little under 1,500 COVID-19 tests each day. But on Monday, it reported 3,400 new tests.
That same day, Sema4 said in a news release that it will analyze up to 6,000 COVID-19 tests per week at its Branford laboratory. It’s also promising a fast turnaround for results -- one to two days. The state praised the news.
“With our proximity to the epicenter of the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, we desperately need increased testing capacity and reliable results reported as quickly as possible,” Josh Geballe, Lamont’s chief operating officer, said in the news release.
On Monday, Lamont’s chief of staff, Paul Mounds, said an even faster test has already made its way to Connecticut: a 15-minute COVID-19 test from Abbott Labs.
Mounds said he expects more Abbott testing devices to arrive this later week.
“We have already received one down in Stamford that is operational,” Mounds said. “We are one of the few states that are going to be on the top of the list in terms of receiving Abbott Lab testing devices.”
Tests for the disease are free to patients regardless of their insurance status.
State Attorney General Wants Special Enrollment For Federal Health Insurance Exchange
More than 20 state attorneys general -- including Connecticut Attorney General William Tong -- wrote to national officials Friday asking for a special enrollment window on the federal insurance exchange.
Connecticut runs its own state marketplace, Access Health CT, which has declared a special enrollment period that runs until April 17. That means Connecticut residents who don’t have insurance can still enroll in a private health plan.
Most states in the U.S. don’t have their own health insurance exchanges. Instead, these 38 states rely on the federal exchange, healthcare.gov.
But the Trump administration told NPR on Friday that it decided against a special enrollment window for the federal exchange.
In a Friday letter, the attorneys general called that decision “shortsighted.”
“Millions of individuals have lost their jobs -- and with their jobs, their ability to pay for health care,” the letter reads. “We should not allow the virus to prevent sick people from obtaining treatment because they lack health care coverage or to face financial ruin if they seek care.”
In addition to Connecticut, other states like California have extended enrollment windows on their state-run insurance marketplaces. The attorneys general urged the federal government to do the same.
“While tests for the disease are free, treatment may not be,” the letter continues. “And medical bills for uninsured individuals can be in the tens of thousands of dollars. Therefore, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to amplify our national problem of high medical bills.”