Connecticut is seeing the beginning of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Gov. Ned Lamont. He confirmed this Thursday afternoon, a day when the U.S. surpassed nine million coronavirus cases (500,000 of those in just the last week), and Wilton’s total case numbers rose above 300 to 302.
Wilton crossed that threshold as of Oct. 28, recording seven new, one-day cases, at an 11% positivity rate.
Statewide numbers concerned Lamont. With 1,319 new positive cases out of 21,739 tests, Connecticut now registers a 6.1% positivity rate, the highest since June 1.
“I looked hard to find a silver lining, and I can’t find it in these numbers, except that we have done a lot of testing,” Lamont said, adding he’s worried about how quickly that rate is rising.
“Let’s face it, we’ve gone from 1 to 2 to 3 and this 6.1% is the harbinger of what’s to come. It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” he said.
There are now 321 people currently hospitalized (+12 since the previous day) and 5 new deaths.
“There’s no good news in those numbers,” Lamont said. “Despite the best efforts, it reflects what is going on in the region and the country.”
The number of CT towns now considered ‘red-alert’–those with more than 15 new daily infections per 100,000 (on a 14-day average Oct. 11-24)–is now at 30 towns, up from 19. Another 53 towns are orange with 10-14 new cases/100,000. Wilton remains at yellow for now.
Red-alert towns have had the option of rolling back to Phase 2. Now, the governor is allowing orange towns as well to exercise their discretion to do the same.
“In terms of erring on the side of caution, allowing municipalities to do the right thing, is important,” he said, noting that the state only moved to Phase 3 less than one month ago.
Rolling back means reducing occupancy from 75% to 50% in restaurants, hair and nail salons, and personal service business; closing indoor performing centers; and capping gatherings at a maximum of 25 people.
The decision to roll back is something Lamont is leaving to municipal first selectmen, mayors, managers. He’s also encouraging them to flex their enforcement authority with fines.
Other actions to reduce infection, targeting/focused on high-risk activities and enforcement. Encouraging towns to be strict, with fines for restaurants operating as bars, residents not wearing masks, and anyone organizing or attending events exceeding limits.
“These are all things municipalities can do–it sends a signal that we’re taking this seriously and we know that COVID infection is ramping up, not just by municipality but in [nearby] regions, and you can be proactive,” he said.
“We’re going to see what we can do a little bit longer, by strict enforcement, giving [towns] the tools to keep your community safe,” inferring that the state may also take steps for any bars that don’t adhere to restrictions by “looking at liquor licenses … to again, show that we’re serious about enforcement.”
Lamont repeatedly referred to the role sports has played in virus transmission across the state, and he encouraged municipal leaders to be especially diligent with enforcement when it comes to sports.
He pointed to hockey tournaments in neighboring states that were spreader events and said that Connecticut has recorded 45 hockey-related infections as well.
“My guidance would be to be careful this weekend,” he said.
Lamont is reticent to impose statewide restrictions but concerns about the quickening pace of rising infection numbers might make him less hesitant down the road.
One other factor at play in his decision-making is the number of hospitalizations across the state. Right now the state has the capacity to accommodate increasing numbers of patients, but it’s something he’s watching closely.
“We’re also seeing in other states how fast that can change. So on two or three weeks’ notice, I want to make sure we have the ability to pivot in case our hospital capacity is at any risk,” Lamont said.
He’s also aware of the economic impact that widespread shutdowns could have. “I’m doing what I can to keep the economy going, to allow us to have some level of normalcy. If that’s not good enough and we find out we’ve got a stretch going on, we’ll take a look at putting in another level of strictness.”
Lamont is paying close attention not only to what’s happening across the country but also in Europe, what he’s calling “the canary in the coal mine” ahead of us. While many European countries have begun to re-impose restrictions–closing pubs and restaurants, and getting stricter with stay-at-home orders–they’re continuing to keep schools open.
“They’re finding the same thing we are, that in-classroom activity is a low-infection area, at least to-date,” Lamont said.
The state has created a new searchable dashboard for school cases that shows cases by school and what the infection protocols are.
The governor also broke down student COVID cases by learning models, showing that students who were fully remote were more likely to have some infections over hybrid and in-person students.
“As we think about sports, as we think about restaurants, and as we think about schools, where is the spread and what can we do about it, on a voluntary basis, on a municipal basis or even a statewide and regional basis?” Lamont said.
But Lamont hasn’t ruled out rolling back in-person learning statewide if numbers continue surging, so he hopes districts will take advantage of as much in-person time now as possible.
“I’ve been urging our K-12, do in-person learning while you can. I can’t promise you that right through November and December that we’re going to have the same opportunities,” he said, not ruling out the likelihood that they’ll likely have to go remote. “Right now look at the trend lines, they’re just not good.”
Where Does that Leave Wilton?
First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice said key town officials are still meeting multiple times a week, and would be ready to respond if and when things change.
“There’s a high probability we could end up as a red alert community,” she said. In that case the next step would be deciding whether to implement new restrictions. “It’s my first decision, do we roll back to Phase 2?”
She’s hopeful that numbers don’t rise again to the levels of last spring, but if they do increase she feels both the town and residents are better prepared. “We can quickly get reactivated if necessary.”
How has the town prepared?
“We have eight well-trained contact tracers in place. We have adequate PPE. We have an established COVID personnel policy to keep our employees, including critical safety personnel, safe. We previously issued Phase 2 and Phase 3 reopening plans for all town-owned facilities and departments, so if we need to roll back and put in greater restrictions, we have the road map.
Importantly, our health director and health department personnel have been working with the senior living communities, Wilton businesses, non-profits and our schools to ensure they have the proper safeguards and are educated on protocols to keep people safe. Months of regular communications with residents has meant that residents are informed.
Asked about whether the town would ever offer COVID testing, Vanderslice said she’s determined there isn’t a need.
“We’re not hearing from residents that they’re unable to obtain testing. There are well over a dozen testing facilities in Norwalk, Ridgefield and Westport. Many are on the State’s searchable list, and residents being monitored by the Health Department have indicated they’re able to access testing without complaint,” she explained, noting that as of Tuesday, Oct. 27, there were 802 residents that had been tested this month, including 225 in the prior seven days–an average of 32 residents per day.
Testing providers would prefer to open in higher density municipalities and those with easy access from main highways. “Fortunately Wilton abuts communities with higher density that are along 95,” she said.
Higher density is important, because that means providers can count on people showing up, allowing them to meet daily testing quotas. That’s harder in Wilton, where Vanderslice said at the recent Town of Wilton/Visiting Nurses’ flu vaccine clinic for Wilton residents, a large percentage of the vaccines went unused because Wilton residents were no-shows.
But while officials watch and wait to see what happens with Wilton’s case numbers, there is active discussion and planning around how the town would implement vaccine distribution. “That planning is in the works,” she said.
But everything depends on residents’ behavior and compliance to mask-wearing, social distancing and gathering restrictions. On Halloween Eve, Vanderslice says that’s important too.
“We continue to encourage residents to follow state DPH guidelines and not participate in traditional parties or trick-or-treat/truck activities. Instead participate in the alternative suggested or those activities being offered in town.”