Wilton officials issued an announcement on Sunday evening that the School Sisters of Notre Dame facility on Belden Hill Rd. in South Wilton is in the middle of a fast-spreading outbreak of COVID-19. In the last week alone, 30 residents and several members of the staff received positive test results, prompting Wilton’s Health Director to order the SSND property and facilities closed to visitors and the public.

The announcement from the office of Wilton’s first selectwoman specifically asked neighbors who walk the property to discontinue doing so. 

At the request of Wilton’s Health Director Barry Bogle, the CT Department of Health is sending a COVID-19 response team to assist with the situation and will be onsite beginning Monday, Jan. 25. 

The SSND property is currently home to over 70 retired nuns, 15 of whom recently received their first vaccine doses as allowed under Phase 1.b. The remaining residents and staff had not yet been vaccinated but were scheduled to have their first shots administered on Monday, Jan. 25 by Visiting Nurse and Hospice of Fairfield County.

The phased vaccine distribution plan has been determined by state officials, and the timeline is strictly controlled through the CT State Department of Health. With the current national vaccine shortage, executing the plan has become even more rigid.

In Phase 1.a. of the plan, which began in December, only frontline medical personnel, nursing homes and assisted living facilities were eligible to receive vaccines.

According to the town’s announcement Sunday, SSND is ‘non-licensed’ as either a nursing home or assisted living facility. As such, residents and staff were ineligible to be vaccinated under Phase 1.a.

School Sisters previously did run a nursing home at the location for sisters who needed skilled care. According to Sarah Gioffre, Wilton’s Coordinator of Community Affairs, SSND had been licensed as a nursing home until it decommissioned the care unit in 2019.

Instead, the convent is considered to be a congregate living setting and only recently became eligible for vaccines under Phase 1.b.

Phase 1.b. started two weeks ago, prioritizing residents aged 75-and-older. Just last week, Gov. Ned Lamont said CT would begin to distribute vaccines to congregate housing facilities now as phase 1.b. expands.

The Town of Wilton is unable to adjust scheduling or make exceptions for which groups can receive the vaccine. Any vaccines it receives can only be administered to approved groups according to the schedule set by the state.

However, in recent weeks, Town of Wilton staff and Visiting Nurse & Hospice of Fairfield County had been working with the SSND management to obtain permission from the state to perform the planned onsite vaccinations.

“We asked permission to use the vaccines shipped to us for this week to vaccinate SSND. We received approval. That approval meant those vaccines wouldn’t have been administered to Wilton residents 75-and-up. This is an example of the reality of the vaccine shortage and the difficult decisions of who gets a vaccine and who doesn’t. What groups are prioritized and what aren’t,” First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice wrote in a post on Facebook. “It is difficult and heartbreaking.”

Sunday’s announcement echoed the sentiment from town leaders: “We are all saddened the outbreak happened prior to those vaccinations,” it read. 

The outbreak has been especially shocking as town officials say SSND residents and management have been diligent throughout the pandemic. Until now, only one resident had tested positive early in the pandemic.

At that time, a section of the facility that was previously dedicated as an Alternate Site for COVID-19 related emergencies was placed into operation by the management at SSND to isolate and monitor any residents who had been exposed. Wilton’s Health Director worked with SSND management to adopt and implement mitigation strategies. 

Vanderslice is also troubled at the speed at which the virus spread throughout the SSND residents, calling it “concerning,” and raising questions about whether the sisters contracted a more virulent form of the virus now believed to be in Connecticut. The state is conducting surveillance genomic testing but as of now, Vanderslice was unsure if any samples will be included in the CT DPH testing.

Contact tracing is ongoing by Wilton’s Health Department and the health departments of communities where staff members live. At this point, officials say there is no evidence of related community spread within Wilton. 

Founded in 1833 in Bavaria, School Sisters of Notre Dame opened the convent in Wilton in 1961. An order devoted to education, the community of sisters has educated many former Wilton students. 

Vanderslice says everyone, from government officials at all levels to Wilton residents, needs to do their part.

“National leadership has to partner with the producers to expand the production of vaccines. State leadership has to keep the pressure on national leadership and keep doing what they are doing to push out the vaccines. Town government has to do what we did leading up to Thursday’s and Saturday’s clinics to ensure we vaccinate our vulnerable populations. Despite the wariness with the pandemic, residents have to stick with wearing their masks, watching their distance and following the other guidance. This is a reminder that we all one community. We need to slow the spread and keep our focus on the long game.

“Please, wear your mask as a sign of support for the sisters and others vulnerable residents. If you pray, pray for the sisters. They have been praying for us.