As hundreds of thousands of Connecticut residents adjusted to life without power this week, Gov. Ned Lamont praised the state’s COVID-19 statistics, pointing to days without recorded deaths and a low positivity rate among test results.
But public health experts are warning about the possibility of an uptick in coronavirus cases as people scramble to restaurants, malls, coffee shops and other retail establishments in search of air conditioning, outlets to charge their electronic devices and an internet connection.
Parking lots at malls in the greater Hartford area resembled the Christmas holiday rush this week, with hundreds of cars packed in. Lines at some restaurants stretched out the door.
Others returned to office buildings they had been avoiding for months, with no other way to get work done. Some people reluctantly visited family members or friends to do their laundry or take a shower.
“COVID has not gone away,” said Dr. Mary Cooper, chief quality officer for the Connecticut Hospital Association. “But it’s not top of mind for people when they’re thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I have no food because I had to throw it all away’ or ‘I have no power and I’m not expected to get it back for days.’”
Health officials are urging people to continue adhering to the safety measures that have allowed Connecticut to avoid a major surge in COVID-19 cases recently. That means wearing a mask and staying six feet away from others, a tricky proposition when people are entering crowded places in search of electricity or fresh food.
Dr. Majid Sadigh, director of global health for Nuvance Health, which owns four hospitals in southwestern Connecticut, said that while the state’s relatively low COVID-19 rates – 1% or less with about 10,000 tests being performed daily – may instill confidence, residents can’t relax on safety protocols.
“That will give the virus the opportunity to breach,” he said. “Nothing is overkill. … This virus is merciless.”
Health officials estimate that 7% of Connecticut’s population has been exposed to COVID-19, a seemingly small number.
But that means if 100 people were to crowd together – in a shopping area or even in a municipal cooling center – seven of them likely have been infected with the virus at some point. And if even one is still contagious, the spread could accelerate rapidly.
About one in 200 people infected with COVID-19 in the United States has died from the illness. By comparison, Sadigh said, the mortality rate for recent severe flu strains has ranged from 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 100,000.
Restaurant and store owners say they are still doing their part to enforce distancing and mask wearing.
Tim Phelan, president of the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association, conceded that many stores are hungry for customers after being closed or operating at a limited capacity for months. But he said retailers are aware of the Lamont administration’s restrictions and take them seriously.
The administration’s rules limit store occupancy to 50% of the normal safety code capacity, with customers and staff wearing masks and all parties maintaining six feet of distance. Staff are expected to count the number of customers entering and exiting stores.
“It’s a balancing act,” Phelan said. “They are going to welcome customers … [but] they’re certainly not going to ignore” the rules.
Town and city officials have been forced to make tough calls, including whether to open community spaces or cooling centers that could draw hundreds or thousands of residents.
In Guilford, a town of 25,000 where about 80% of residents were without power Thursday, leaders were trying to decide whether to open a shelter for people seeking a place to cool off.
“I can’t keep up with the number of calls, emails and Facebook messages I’m getting from people who are literally crying out for help, who have medical conditions, who have no choice but to leave their house and go to someplace they deem unsafe,” said Rep. Sean Scanlon, a Democrat from Guilford. “This is outrageous.”
Scanlon said he is particularly concerned for people who rely on electricity to run or charge their medical devices, such as CPAP machines for sleep apnea. Buildings without power also pose hazards for people with disabilities; with elevators out of order, some residential buildings have limited or no access for tenants using a wheelchair.
“Eversource is placing municipal leaders and the state in untenable public health decisions, where we basically are being forced, because of their incompetence, to choose between letting people who are vulnerable suffer at home or run the risk of getting an infectious disease in the middle of a global pandemic,” Scanlon said. “If we see a spike in cases, they will own part of that.”
Utility officials said they are rushing to restore power, bringing in numerous crews from outside Connecticut. As of Friday afternoon, 378,000 of Eversource’s customers were still without power. United Illuminating, which serves a smaller number of households in the state, said it was still working to restore power to 43,601 of its customers.
For people visiting friends and relatives, health officials recommended donning masks and gloves when entering a home and staying in different rooms or on separate floors if possible. Employers welcoming workers back to the office should screen for a fever or respiratory symptoms, and provide hand sanitizing products.
“This post-storm situation would be challenging under the best of circumstances,” said Dr. Virginia Bieluch, chief of infectious diseases at the Hospital of Central Connecticut. “People need to try to continue physically distancing themselves, and it’s really important that you wear your mask. We’re all concerned about it.”
With fatigue setting in from this year’s mounting challenges, residents may be tempted to ease up on their vigilance, said Dr. Howard P. Forman, a professor of public health and management at the Yale School of Public Health. But upholding good practices will help the state sidestep an increase of COVID-19 cases.
“The more that people congregate and the more that people commingle in a closed space – particularly one that is indoors – the worse off we are,” Forman said. “I wouldn’t expect this to set off a massive wave, but I would be cautious about it.”
Coronavirus testing capacity dips
Tropical storm Isaias caused temporary dips in testing capacity at some sites this week, a vital gauge of the state’s coronavirus rate.
Hartford HealthCare’s network of eight major COVID testing sites, including ones in Bridgeport, Hartford, Meriden, and Newington, normally test 1,000 to 1,300 people every weekday. But some locations shut down early on Tuesday, and only 808 tests were performed, said Dr. James Corden, chief clinical integration officer. On Wednesday and Thursday, more than 1,000 tests were administered.
In Meriden, one of the testing tents was damaged Tuesday night and had to be rebuilt. It was back in operation by Wednesday.
“We’re pretty much back up and running,” Corden said.
Reporter Isabella Zou contributed to this story.