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Local Emergency Directors Ask Governor For Help with Coronavirus, Lamont Outlines Actions

Local Emergency Directors Ask Governor For Help with Coronavirus, Lamont Outlines Actions

Hartford Courant,  February 27, 2020

By Christopher Keating

Gov. Ned Lamont, seeking to address concern about the rapid spread of coronavirus, on Wednesday outlined steps the state has taken to prepare for the arrival of the deadly virus in Connecticut, including frequent communication with hospitals, local health districts and schools.

“We’ve got to be ready for the fact that it could be coming to our shores in a more aggressive way," Lamont said, flanked at a news conference by top health and public safety officials. He said state leaders would be holding daily meetings and have been in regular contact with their federal partners. The state’s hospitals are prepared to treat people for the virus, officials said.

“You’ve got state government working together on a coordinated basis and making sure we can provide all the support we can for our hospitals and health care providers," Lamont said.

The governor directed residents to follow the guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how best to prevent the disease from spreading, including frequent hand washing and avoiding close contact with people who are sick.

“There’s been one infection here in New England so far — none in the state of Connecticut," Lamont said. “This is not a call to make you nervous. It’s a call to give you confidence that we’re ready for what’s going forward here."

Lamont said the state’s congressional delegation in Washington is working to obtain the state’s share of any federal grants that may become available in the future.

Dr. Matthew Cartter, the state’s top epidemiologist, said the money would be approved by Congress and then allocated under a formula to the states for various supplies and expenses. The Trump administration has requested $2.5 billion in funding to combat coronavirus, but Connecticut’s all-Democratic congressional delegation says that is far short of what is needed.

“What has been submitted … is unacceptable,” U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, told Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar during an appropriations committee hearing Wednesday.

Cartter said public health officials nationwide have shifted their focus from trying to keep the virus out of the United States to instead prepare to combat the virus if it arrives.

“We now have a window of opportunity to get ready for transmission that could occur here," said Cartter, who has worked for the state health department for 35 years. "Trying to slow this thing down, prepare the medical system so that we can handle anyone that gets sick ... and try to reduce ... the number of people who get sick or even die if this arrives here.”

Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Commissioner James Rovella said state officials have been having regular meetings and making preparations regarding coronavirus since January.

“I want the public to be assured that hospitals are prepared to care for patients with [coronavirus],” said Jennifer Jackson, CEO of the Connecticut Hospital Association. “This is what hospitals do. We regularly prepare, we plan, we train for outbreaks of disease. ... We do expect and we are ready for patients to present to the hospitals. We will identify them. We will isolate them, and we will treat them.”

The state health department has sent out guidance to public schools and businesses that correlates with guidelines distributed by the CDC. Lamont said state public health Commissioner Renée Coleman-Mitchell was in Washington Wednesday and had received a briefing from federal officials on the virus. More information about the state’s response is available at ct.gov.

Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks said Wednesday it has not put any special measures in place regarding the virus, but it is continuing to monitor the situation.

“While the Centers for Disease Control is currently conducting [screenings] at 20 airports across the U.S. for the coronavirus, since Bradley International Airport does not receive direct flights from impacted regions, health officials have not called for any additional screening measures at the airport at this time,” Bradley said in a statement.

Bradley said the safety of its passengers is of “utmost importance,” and officials will stay in contact with the CDC and the state Department of Public Health to ensure all precautions, as needed, are taken.

 “We will continue to respond to the advice of health experts, and we are prepared to adjust our operations with the appropriate measures should the need arise,” Bradley said.

The spread of the virus in Europe prompted colleges and universities across the country, including in Connecticut, to suspend study abroad programs.  

Programs halted back to top

The Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system is canceling travel to countries designated Level 2 and Level 3 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, system President Mark Ojakian directed Wednesday morning. Those countries include China, South Korea, Iran, Italy and Japan.

A UConn spokeswoman said the university has been in contact with 88 students in Italy who are participating in study abroad programs in Florence and Perugia, “and all are safe and healthy.” No decision had been made about asking the students to return to the U.S.

 “UConn is advising students to avoid travel to affected areas where Covid-19 has been problematic, such as the Lombardy and Veneto regions of northern Italy,” Stephanie Reitz, the spokeswoman, said in an email. “We also are advising them to closely follow the rules and guidelines of their host program when deciding whether to travel out of Italy on trips, given other countries’ decisions on border restrictions.”

The University of New Haven decided to halt instruction at its Tuscany campus in Prato, Italy, and recommend its 80 students there return to the U.S., spokesperson Douglas Whiting said.

Olivia Emerson is one of those UNH juniors returning from Prato this week. Her father, David Emerson of Cheshire, said just about two dozen students chose to stay behind.

He had recommended that Olivia wait and see, too, after considering that the virus may not spread to her region, but she could potentially be exposed while traveling, or even in the United States if more cases surface here.

He told her, “You know how you are right now. You don’t know what you’re gonna encounter just traveling back.”

David Emerson said he respects his daughter’s decision. Olivia, who is studying criminal justice, weighed the current situation with the possibilities of government-regulated travel bans, quarantines and shutdowns.

But in the U.S., he said, many people seem to be overreacting to the threat of coronavirus.

“I understand it’s something new. They don’t understand it. They don’t have a handle on it,” David Emerson said. “With something unknown, in my opinion that’s where people are starting to panic.”

With spring break approaching, high schools are also making adjustments to spring break travel.

In Southington, school officials are in close communication with the local health department as they evaluate several student trips to Europe scheduled in April.

“The information being provided to us via CDC has started to change so quickly that it seems likely what we know today will change by tomorrow,” Superintendent Timothy Connellan wrote in a letter to families Wednesday. “As always, the health and well-being of our students and staff will be the priority.”

The Hopkins School in New Haven had already canceled its upcoming program at the Yali-Peicui School in Changsha, China, New Haven’s sister city, back in January. Now the private, college-preparatory school is evaluating a trip to France scheduled for next month, said communications director John Galayda.

The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville decided Wednesday to cancel its spring break trip to Italy, although trips to Mexico and Poland are still on, interim communications director Danielle Sinclair said.

The state’s emergency managers appealed to Lamont earlier Wednesday for help.

Michael Spera, president of the Connecticut Emergency Management Association and the Old Saybrook police chief, wrote Lamont saying the organization is concerned the state they will run out of protective equipment. He requested the state set aside an allotment of gloves, face masks and Tyvek suits and consider activating the state’s emergency operations center.

“Countries that make the masks are not exporting them; they’re keeping them for themselves, and U.S. vendors are selling to everyone else, and they are not able to replenish supplies fast enough,” Spera said in an interview. “There is a three- to four-month backlog. That is endangering first responders and health care providers."
 

Lamont said the shortage of equipment was a national problem.

“Right now, given the nature of this pandemic overseas, when it comes to protective equipment … there’s a scramble,” the governor said at the news conference. “Our hospitals are ready, they’ve got a supply right now, and [Jackson] and the rest of the team is out scouring other protective equipment wherever we can find it. That’s true of every state in the country.” 

The CDC does not recommend people who are well wear a face mask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases including coronavirus but says they should be used by people who show symptoms of the virus to help prevent it from spreading to others. “The use of face masks is also crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings (at home or in a health care facility)," CDC says.