EXCLUSIVE: Video Interview with Lynne Vanderslice–Wilton’s COVID-19 Deaths, How Wilton is Doing

On Wednesday, April 15, the CT Department of Public Health released information on the number of Wilton residents that had succumbed to COVID-19 related complications. It was a statistic that hadn’t been reported previously, either by state officials or town leaders. GOOD Morning Wilton spoke exclusively with First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice in a video interview to discuss the news as well as get an update on how the town is faring at this point in the coronavirus crisis.

Vanderslice told GMW that the figure was something she learned only Wednesday as well, along with everyone else. She explained that the state doesn’t have an efficient system for immediately notifying municipalities about COVID-19-related deaths.

“If someone dies in Wilton, then the way we know about it is because there is a death certificate that’s filed in Wilton. But if someone dies at Norwalk Hospital, the death certificate is issued by the city of Norwalk. Then that goes up to the state; then the state will send that down to the town clerk and that can take a month. So it’s, it’s very delayed,” she explained.

In fact, the number jumped almost overnight. “One morning, [Health Director] Barry [Bogle] came in and, the number 11 was there, and we don’t know who those people are. We did have some information from the hospital–we had a different number that was about half of what they’ve reported,” Vanderslice said.

The state must have been doing what Vanderslice called “catch-up”.

“I think what they were doing is a lot of catch-up…it may be the month or more lag before that’s actually made available to the town clerk.

Vanderslice says the resources are limited at the state level, including software that wasn’t meant to handle the large numbers and scope of the current pandemic.

“I know for sure that doesn’t have the capabilities because right now, we have 99 cases in Wilton as of [Wednesday] afternoon, but the system only shows 20, because that’s all the system can show. It’s just not built for this kind of situation,” she says.

Despite the enormity of the problem, the state’s response gets strong marks from Vanderslice, who says everyone is doing the best job possible in a very difficult situation–including Gov. Lamont.

“He saw what was happening down here and he accelerated the executive orders, which I was really happy to see that happen. And as things come up, we had these phone calls–they were two times a week, now they’re once a week–issues are raised on those phone calls and then we typically see an executive order that addresses those. So I do feel they’ve been very responsive in that regard,” she said.

One area where there Vanderslice continues to see problems is in procuring PPE–the personal protective equipment, including masks, gloves and face shields. “I don’t know that I can fault the state because this is a national issue and it’s a global issue, but the one area that it really continues to fall down is on the PPEs. We finally received what we’re getting from the federal government and it wasn’t what we needed–it was a very small supply of things that aren’t needed,” she explained, adding, “So we’re all scrambling on our own by town to get the resources. And then on a regional level, it’s also happening. But that’s one area where we need better coordination–it’s not just the state, it’s nationally.”

Vanderslice approves of the governor’s new guidance for residents to wear masks out in public, and she defended her strict approach of banning field usage in order to discourage social gatherings.

“As people are seeing the growth in the numbers…then I think they understand why the things were done. And I think generally most people are happy that we have been able to contain the spread the way we have,” she said.

She pointed to data to support her rationale. “My brother lives out in Minneapolis and there they only have 33 cases per 100,000 people. That’s for the entire state of Minnesota. In Wilton, we have over 500 [cases] per 100,000 [people], so it’s a completely different experience. Then if you look at Stamford, they’re twice the per capita of Wilton; you look at Westchester County and it’s multiples of it. So where you are very much impacts your view on how decisions should be made.”

That conservative approach has helped protect Wilton’s frontline personnel.

“We’ve been very fortunate in Wilton in that we have not had any positive cases within our police force or the fire department; the health department is healthy, the town employees are healthy. Some of the neighboring towns, Weston has talked about the fact that they have had police officers [test positive]. Their dispatch had to be transferred to Redding. We haven’t had any of that,” Vanderslice said, adding that everyone is taking this very seriously.

“We did some things, maybe ahead of other people, and we have policies that people stay home if there’s been a potential exposure. And everybody’s just worked together to make sure we have the coverage, but also to make sure that the virus isn’t coming into our buildings,” she said.

Turning to the Budget

One of the major changes that has happened because of the COVID-19 crisis is how the budget for FY2021 will be decided. Because people cannot gather safely to vote, the governor issued an executive order that allows Wilton to give budget-setting power to the Board of Finance. Wilton’s officials on the Board of Selectmen and Board of Education will be reviewing the budgets they put together before the crisis began and reevaluating where they might make reductions now, given the more dire economic situation.

Vanderslice took part in the Board of Finance’s meeting earlier this week to explain other executive orders the governor has made that impact how Wilton can set taxes for 2021. She had hoped to receive more explicit guidance from the Board of Finance members than she did, on what kind of cuts they think should be made.”

“At the Board of Finance meeting the other night, there wasn’t any firm guidance. There was talk about us bringing forward three scenarios. I’m actually going to write them later today to ask them for some clarification,” she said.

She compared the current economic environment to a time when she sat on the Board of Finance herself, during a similarly volatile financial period. She says that BOF made some hard choices–ones that might have been unpopular but were necessary.

“We have to recognize the fact this is just like 2008, 2009, or it could very well be worse. I was on the board of finance in 2009 and…we were a very unpopular group of people because we said we recognize what was happening, we recognize the impact on the residents and we cut the Board of Education budget and we cut the Board of Selectmen budget and it was standing room only and people were very angry and said they would be back. And then the next year they did not come back because their income had been cut–not only just that one time but continued to stay down and their home values continued to stay down. So I think it’s important to remember that.”

Vanderslice hopes that residents will contact the Board of Finance with concrete information about how they’ve been impacted financially in today’s difficult economic climate.

“I know everybody doesn’t want to share their situation, but if you’ve lost your job, if you’ve been furloughed, if your income’s been cut, you don’t have to give them the details, but you think the [BOF members] need to understand whether those kinds of things are happening in this community, right?” she urged, adding, “Because if you look at the town charter, it’s their job to look for opportunities for savings in the budgets and they really need to consider what is affordable to the taxpayers.”