Gov. Ned Lamont was joined by a national health expert Thursday to say that plans are moving ahead for Connecticut schools to open in September as COVID-19 cases surge elsewhere -- but there’s a real possibility that students could return to distance learning after the first months of the year.
“Even if I can get them in classrooms for a few months, what a difference that’ll make,” Lamont said.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, expressed support for the state's return-to-school plan, but he warned that distance learning could resume later in the school year.
“We’re going to be touch-and-go for the next six months,” Gottlieb said. “It’s important to get as much as we can, for as long as we can.”
Gottlieb, who served on Lamont’s Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group, said he plans to send his own children to public schools in Connecticut at the start of the academic year.
“I have a lot of confidence in how the state has made decisions and how my local district has made decisions,” he said.
Still, Gottlieb predicts a resurgence of the virus in the Northeast in the fall and winter. He said there is little evidence that the spread of COVID-19 can be controlled nationally, adding that the virus may infect 50% or 60% of the population. An end will be in sight, he said, when a vaccine is readily available and enough people recover from COVID-19 to provide adequate immunity in the population.
Despite Lamont’s optimism, early district surveys show that 10% to 15% of parents plan to keep their children home for distance learning when schools reopen, the governor said.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 infection rate in Connecticut remains less than 1%. The state reported 114 new cases after 11,453 tests in the last day. There were 66 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Connecticut, according to state health numbers released Thursday -- one fewer than Wednesday. Nine more people died from COVID-19, bringing the state’s total to 4,389 deaths.
There’s also this wrinkle: Younger people appear to be getting infected at higher rates. State health data showed that residents between the ages of 20 and 29 had the most infections from July 5-11 -- after the long holiday weekend. Second to that age group in the number of new cases were those 30 to 39, Lamont said.
“It’s July, I know you haven’t seen your friends in some time,” Lamont said. “When you look at the numbers in Connecticut and you look at what’s going on around the country, especially in those Southern states, that can be a canary in the coal mine. So please, please be very careful.”
Lamont also pointed out that hospitals in Arizona are near 100% capacity and those in the Miami area are close to 95% full.
Record Job Growth In June As State Reopened From COVID Regulations
Connecticut gained 73,300 jobs in June, the state Department of Labor announced Thursday. The increase was the largest single monthly jump in jobs on record, according to Andy Condon, director of the Office of Research at the Connecticut Department of Labor. Condon noted the historic gain has to be viewed from the perspective of the unprecedented job losses in April and May caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Weekly initial unemployment claims in June averaged 9,986 for first-time filers in Connecticut. These claims were down from 19,772 in May before additional businesses opened under the second phase of Lamont's reopening plan but approached three times the number of 3,655 in June 2019.
The average processing time for initial unemployment claims in Connecticut is about two weeks, Department of Labor Commissioner Kurt Westby said during a telephone news conference Thursday.
The Labor Department has processed 685,000 applications of 708,000 received since March, Westby said.
He said the time it takes to process claims has improved from the start of the pandemic -- when it was about six weeks -- but it can’t be done by “snapping our fingers.”
Department of Labor Deputy Commissioner Danté Bartolomeo said the state’s consumer contact center has added live text and chat and a new phone system with a callback option for calls with long wait times. Callers can also get help in English or Spanish, she said. The state has 120 employees dedicated to the contact center through December, Bartolomeo said.
In normal times, people answering the phones usually undergo months of training, but new employees are now on the front lines of the phone calls.
“We are flying the plane while we build it,” she said.
The contact center can be reached at 800-956-3294.
The trust fund for the Department of Labor has a balance of $122 million, Westby said. Connecticut has not had to borrow money yet, he said, crediting federal money for staffing.
Murphy And Blumenthal Join Lamont In Calling For Additional COVID-19 Funding
U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal joined Lamont at the Colt Gateway in Hartford Thursday morning, calling on the U.S. Senate to pass legislation that would provide additional money to battle COVID-19 and ease the economic hardships resulting from the pandemic.
Both Murphy and Blumenthal said the Senate should be in session now to discuss and pass the HEROES (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions) Act, which the House passed on May 15.
“It’s unconscionable that the Senate isn’t in session right now,” Murphy said at the news conference.
The $3 trillion in COVID relief funding approved by the House is not expected to pass the Republican-controlled Senate. Blumenthal, a Democrat, called out his Republican colleagues.
“To [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell, my message is lead or get out of the way,” Blumenthal said.
Lamont said money from the HEROES Act is needed, as funds from the first round of federal pandemic relief have gone to keep day care centers, hospitals, small businesses and towns and cities operational in the short term. Murphy noted rental assistance included in the HEROES Act will continue to prevent evictions and foreclosures.
Mosquitoes In Newington Test Positive For West Nile
As much of the attention is focused on COVID-19 this summer, officials continue to monitor the annual spread of the West Nile virus. State scientists announced the virus was found in mosquitoes trapped in Churchill Park in Newington on July 8.
“The first West Nile virus-positive mosquitoes of the season have been identified,” Philip Armstrong, medical entomologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, said in a statement. “Late June to mid-July is when we typically first detect WNV infection in mosquitoes, and we anticipate further buildup of the virus from now through September."
State officials reminded residents to take precautions against West Nile.
“We encourage everyone to take simple measures such as wearing mosquito repellent and covering bare skin, especially during dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are most active,” said Jason White, director of the experiment station.
UConn Fall Sports Teams To Play Only Big East Conference Games
The Big East conference Thursday announced that fall sports schedules for member schools will not include any nonconference competition. The sports affected are men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s cross country, volleyball and field hockey.
UConn officially rejoined the Big East on July 1. The football team is an unaffiliated independent program. There has been no decision about winter sports -- including basketball -- or whether conference championships for fall sports will be held.