Connecticut officials pushed hard Monday to prepare the state for a major surge in coronavirus cases, urging hospitals to free up more beds and eyeing nursing homes and college dorm rooms as potential sites for overflow COVID-19 patients.
Gov. Ned Lamont announced the coronavirus death toll in the state has risen to 10 and that the number of people who have tested positive for the disease jumped from 327 to 415 in a single day. State health experts now expect Connecticut’s infection rate to double every 3-5 days.
“This is still in the acceleration phase,” Dr. Matthew Cartter, the state epidemiologist, said at the governor’s late afternoon news conference on the crisis. Asked how soon Connecticut hospitals might reach capacity, Carter responded: “I think we just don’t know.”
Cartter said the first hospitals to feel the coming surge will be in Fairfield County.
“Right now, the first hospitals that will have capacity issues are Greenwich, Danbury, Bridgeport, Norwalk,” Cartter said. “The hospitals we are talking about, they are all making adjustments as we speak to their room availability, their structures where they can. They’re going to expand their ICUs. Those are things that they are doing. And right now, they are still holding their own.”
One reason Fairfield County hospitals will first experience capacity problems, Cartter and Lamont said, is because of their proximity to New York state, which has added about 5,000 confirmed cases on each of the past two days. As of 3 p.m. Monday, it had 20,875, with 12,305 in NYC and 2,894 in Westchester County.
“I can tell you, Greenwich Hospital, there are a lot of New York cases that are going there right now,” Lamont said. “We have to watch that pretty carefully. And, also, let’s face it, New York City is a bit of a canary in a coal mine.”
Cartter said he is encouraged by the relatively low rates of confirmed infections in Hartford and New Haven counties.
“You need to remember this virus does not share our sense of time. I’m actually surprised, pleasantly surprised that Hartford and New Haven county aren’t more impacted yet.”
Cartter said testing materials and personal protection equipment for health care workers remain in short supply. There is a high rate of younger patients getting tested, and the overall positive rate is only 12%.
“Most of the people who are getting tested are in the 30 to 50 years of age range,” Cartter said. “The people who are being hospitalized with COVID-19 are more like 50 to 80, so most of the tests are going to people who are much younger than the people who are at greatest risk for this disease.”
Schools and State Capitol will remain closed
Lamont ordered schools to stay closed through April 20, an additional three weeks past his original 2-week closure order.
The move is an attempt to avoid the domino effect of schools independently announcing extending their closures past next Tuesday, as the governor initially ordered. The superintendent of Bridgeport announced earlier Monday that he plans to keep schools closed through April 20.
Legislative leaders also announced Monday that the state Capitol and Legislative Office Building will remain closed until at least April 13, which means lawmakers will not resume business before that date.
Unemployment claims continue to rise
Meanwhile, state labor officials said new unemployment compensation claims have now reached about 99,000 due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Connecticut’s Department of Labor received more than 72,000 new unemployment claims from Friday, March 13 to Friday, March 20, according to agency spokesman Steve Jensen.
Over the weekend of March 21-22, the department received approximately 17,000 new claims, and another 10,000 new claims from unemployed workers on Monday.
“We are continuing to shift resources to devote more staff to processing of new claims,” Jensen said. “Governor Lamont has authorized the use of overtime for this purpose, and we have processing staff working on Saturdays.”
Non-essential businesses close tonight
The governor’s order for “non-essential businesses” to shut down to help slow the spread of the virus took effect Monday, but the order included dozens of exemptions. State Economic Development Commissioner David Lehman said hundreds of companies and firms have contacted state officials asking if they can be included in those exempt categories.
The business and school closures are an effort to stem the expected tide of new coronavirus cases that officials worry could overwhelm Connecticut hospitals.
Lamont said Monday hospitals have already freed up 30-40 percent of their beds in anticipation of the thousands of COVID-19 cases that are expected. But the governor said he is asking hospitals to make at least 50% of their patient beds available in this crisis.
Administration officials have also identified “2,000 nursing home beds that could be available in the next two months,” Lamont said.
State officials are coordinating with hospitals, colleges and universities to identify dormitory rooms – now empty of students – that could be used for coronavirus patients that no longer need intensive hospital care but shouldn’t be released to go home.
Lamont said one note of good news in this crisis is that Connecticut COVID-19 patients appear to be recovering more swiftly than patients do in China. He said Chinese virus patients spent an average of four weeks in intensive care units while patients in this state are able to leave the ICU in 13-14 days.
“I think we’ll find our cure rate is better,” Lamont said.
About 15% of people who test positive for the virus need hospitalization and just 5% of those who are hospitalized end up in intensive care, the governor said.
Hartford HealthCare announces first COVID-19 death
Also Monday, Hartford HealthCare officials announced the first coronavirus death involving a patient at their facility.
“The loss of our first patient maybe just brought everything a little more home,” said Dr. James Cardon, chief clinical integration officer for Hartford HealthCare. He said the death of the patient created “a ripple effect” throughout the hospital system and brought home to all staff members the “enormous challenge” of this crisis.
“Though everybody recognized it, there’s an emotional component when it becomes very real,” Cardon said.
Cardon declined to provide any details about the patient who died. He said Hartford HealthCare now has 12 other confirmed COVID-19 patients within its network of facilities.
Testing at Hartford HealthCare has resulted in 43 positive results for the virus. More than 1,000 people have been tested for COVID-19 by the system’s staff, Cardon said, but officials are still waiting for the results of 60% of those tests.
Cardon said the hospital system is using both the state laboratory and commercial labs for its tests. Although it now takes between 48 hours and five days to get results back, Cardon said officials are hoping that improvements in testing procedures will soon reduce the wait to 24 hours or less.
“Turn-around times will improve,” Cardon said
Cardon said the mood among nurses, doctors and aides is serious and that there are “components of fear” in their reaction to the crisis. But he said “everyone is focused on our jobs… It’s what we kind of signed up for.”
Lamont said it’s possible that Connecticut’s restrictions on people gathering in groups could get tougher in the weeks ahead. He said he has already asked the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to limit parking at state parks in order to reduce crowded conditions on trails and beaches.
Mark Pazniokas and Jacqueline Rabe Thomas contributed to this story.
Correction: Health experts say the state’s infection rate will double every 3-5 days, not every 3-5 weeks, as this story originally stated.