On March 6, 2020, Gov. Ned Lamont announced that the first case of COVID-19 had been detected in Connecticut, and within weeks, life as we knew it was a memory.
Schools were shut down, universities emptied, businesses shuttered. Those of us who were fortunate enough to be able to work from home set up shop at our kitchen tables and joined what seemed like endless Zoom meetings. Others continued to report for work, stocking grocery store shelves, filling prescriptions and caring for the sick and dying. We scavenged toilet paper and disinfectant wipes, had drive-by birthday celebrations for our kids and sewed face masks in our homes. Jobs evaporated, and parents were suddenly asked to become teachers.
We huddled in our homes, wondering what – or whom – we would lose next.
The answers came quickly, as the virus spread and the intensity of suffering increased – especially in nursing homes, where thousands of residents would die in the coming months.
Today, a year later, vaccines are heralding what could be a return to a new normal. It’s not over – it might never entirely be over – but along the way, we have learned important lessons about ourselves, about our society, about its most vulnerable, and about the gaps in the safety net that grew larger over time.
Will we heed those lessons? Time will tell.
We’ll see how long the memory of this event lasts, but it underlines the enormous importance of science.”
In the coming weeks, the CT Mirror will take a close look at the people and institutions that have been hardest hit by the coronavirus – what they’ve lost, and what they’ve learned.
We will look at the nursing home industry, the epicenter of Connecticut’s COVID-19 fatalities. From changes in visitation and patient care to a dwindling population, the nursing homes have weathered enormous changes over the last year.
We will look at the poor, who suffered disproportionately during the pandemic. A major portion of the jobs lost were low-wage, and residents of the state’s cities were hit particularly hard. And as higher-wage jobs have recovered, the unemployment rate among lower-wage workers is still disturbingly high. A year of unemployment benefits could soon come to an end. Is it time to recalibrate our understanding of what it means to be an “essential worker”?
We will look at our corrections system, which has about 3,350 fewer people in prisons and jails today than it did on March 1, 2020. Is the state’s historically low prison population here to stay — signifying a long-term shift in how we approach criminal justice — or could it skyrocket once the pandemic ends?
We will look at our schools and how they tried to adapt; at our students, who in many ways lost a year of their lives; and what lessons educators will take from these hardships into the future. We will look at the historic drop in students attending public schools and where students went who would otherwise be in school. We will ask: Are the children OK?
But first, here are some voices from across a broad spectrum of policy areas. When we asked them to reflect on the lessons of this past year, their answers were enlightening, heartbreaking and sobering. Interspersed between their answers are photographs that illustrate our time as a pandemic people.
‘My mother survived two strokes, but this was just so quick’
Torrea Jones lost her mother, Earlene Morin, who died at Kimberly Hall North on April 13.
As she looks back at her mother’s death, Jones now realizes how totally helpless those patients were as the virus spread through the facility alarmingly fast, killing 43 residents in the month of April.
Jones remembers seeing maskless nurses standing near her mother while she visited through the window.
The end came fairly quickly for 78-year-old Earlene. One day after staff had assured the family there was no coronavirus in the building, Jones got a call that her mother had a cough and was going to get a pneumonia vaccine.
The next day Earlene was given Tylenol, the third day morphine. On Easter Sunday, her family stood outside the window of her room and saw her sitting in her wheelchair with an oxygen mask on, seemingly unaware of her circumstances. The next day she died.
“My mother survived two strokes, but this was just so quick,” Jones said. “All those people just dropped like flies in that place. It’s still hard to believe sometimes.”
The pandemic has crippled Pastor AJ Johnson’s neighborhood in Hartford, where many of the residents work at restaurants, hotels and retail jobs. He says the pandemic has exposed the depth and breadth of systemic racism.
“With people working from home, Hartford doesn’t work properly. So Hartford’s economics are just not working. A lot of our income comes from suburban communities and people driving in. So it just got exposed but was something that we always knew. This pandemic, it’s exposed our educational system. Students who were already behind are — oh my God — they’re definitely behind now. This pandemic has exposed racism in a very magnified way,” Johnson says. “But, it says a lot that Virginia declared racism a public health crisis before Connecticut. Virginia was one of the states [years ago] that wouldn’t move when it came to racism, but yet we find them declaring racism in their state capitol. And here we are in Connecticut, just unwilling to have that conversation from our executive leadership in any kind of way.”
“We’ve got to do something about racism and systemic racism. So, now that the attention to it has worn off, a year later, people are starting to move and start to get their lives back together and working, so it becomes a distant thing of the past, but it has magnified it.”
‘That has got to stop’
While Connecticut’s extreme wealth inequality was well known before the pandemic, the coronavirus has brought it to the forefront like nothing else has, said Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven.
“All it has done is push people more into areas of desperation,” said Walker, longtime co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee and one of the legislature’s most vocal advocates for greater state investment in health care, education and social services. “We’ve seen kids stealing cars just so they have an area to sleep.”
Perhaps one of the greatest weaknesses exposed by the virus, Walker added, is Connecticut’s funding for the community nonprofits that deliver the bulk of state-sponsored social services.
“Nonprofits are folding, and the lines are getting longer for the services people need to survive in Connecticut,” she said. “That has got to stop.”
Inside the prisons
Kevnesha Boyd was a licensed mental health counselor at New Haven Correctional Center from 2015-2019. Now, she is a committee member of Stop Solitary CT, working to pass a bill that would largely end the practice of solitary confinement and establish an oversight board that would have the power to investigate and make recommendations to the Department of Correction.
The pandemic has shown her and other advocates just how urgently the prison system needs to be reformed.
“Torture among the incarcerated population worsened during this current pandemic including; limited PPE, vaccines and continued isolation,” Boyd said. “Close proximity, lack of ventilation, and restricted mobility make incarcerated people a priority for community release and the COVID vaccination. We must change the immoral practices used by DOC or more people will continue to suffer.”
The necessity of video conferencing
Miriam Gohara, a clinical associate professor at Yale Law School, was the lead attorney on a recent sentence modification case that cut her client’s sentence from 50 years to 28. The client, Clyde Meikle, appeared via video for several crucial hearings. She and her team had to prepare Meikle virtually and over the phone. Usually, that prep work is done in person.
Shortly before one of his hearings, Meikle asked the law students on the call to turn their cameras on. Although Meikle had difficult, emotional conversations with them while preparing his case, he’d never seen their faces.
“When the work you’re doing depends on a lot of trust building, a lot of hard conversations, a lot of challenging conversations you would normally have face-to-face and eye-to-eye with somebody — about things that happened in their past, about how they’re going to express remorse — those are conversations that usually happen over many hours of sitting together in a room, and that wasn’t really possible,” said Gohara.
Gohara said the court’s use of Microsoft TEAMS has improved during the pandemic. That technology proved invaluable for Meikle’s case and so many others, but, as Gohara points out, technology has its limits.
“It seems like now they have the infrastructure for it,” Gohara said. “What we wouldn’t want to see happen is for them to start substituting in-person hearings for this. It’s not a substitute, but it can be a helpful way to navigate. We would have been in big trouble if we hadn’t been able to do the hearing on video; we would have waited until the pandemic cleared. That could have been another year.”
COVID by the numbers
Mark Abraham, the executive director of DataHaven, said he believes the pandemic has created a stronger appreciation for data as it has helped many understand the spread of the disease in their communities and that, in turn, shaped their behaviors.
“You definitely saw with the pandemic lots of news, from TV to front page articles, about data. So to the extent it changed week to week, I think that definitely affected people’s behavior, whether they go out, have gatherings with people,” he said.
“The data really showed that the restrictions were probably less important than the information environment. It affected whether people would leave the home, things like that,” he said. “And then, you see people checking the numbers for their town and that sort of thing. You know, I can’t think of a parallel, exactly, where people would be so interested in what’s happening in their town.”
‘We don’t need a fancy office’
Fred Carstensen, director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis, said the pandemic, though tragic, has been fascinating from the vantage point of an educator. For example, the head of UConn’s economic think-tank said he now routinely prepares short videos for his students they can access throughout the semester to supplement their textbooks and other reading materials.
“I’ve learned to do things I will do even now as I go back into the classroom,” he said.
Carstensen also said he believes the pandemic has taught the white-collar sector of Connecticut’s economy lessons that will be retained for years to come.
“We don’t need a fancy office. We don’t need a large office space,” he said, adding that companies have learned a remote-working staff generally is more productive — spending less time on the road commuting — and also is less susceptible to illness.
And while the pandemic underlined Connecticut’s long-overdue need to invest more in information technology infrastructure, it also has also exposed the need to invest in research institutions.
“We’ll see how long the memory of this event lasts, but it underlines the enormous importance of science,” he said. “It’s really been phenomenal to get these vaccines. That comes out of an extraordinary science capacity.”
‘The greatest loss of the pandemic’
Matthew Barrett, president and CEO of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, said that after a year of COVID-19 illnesses and deaths in Connecticut’s nursing homes, he’s learned the power of collaboration among agencies.
“A deep understanding of ‘being in this together’ can lead to extraordinary outcomes, even among organizations that approach their work from a totally different vantage point – even the government as a regulator and payer and a health care provider community, delivering service to a population with complex health care needs can do big things when they work together,” he said. “We saw that.”
The death toll in nursing homes was the most devastating blow of the pandemic, he said. As of March 2, the most recent data available, 3,862 nursing home residents had died.
“The answer will be the same for almost everyone in Connecticut’s long term care community,” Barrett said. “For a community of caregivers whose mission it is to protect and care for their residents, the magnitude of the lives lost to the merciless virus will always be the greatest loss of the pandemic.”
‘A little bit of our collective hope was dashed’
Wizdom Powell, director of the Health Disparities Institute at UConn Health, said the last year has been a reminder that justice requires vigilance.
“I think we presumed that we had made a lot of gains with respect to racial equity and justice in our nation, and we got lulled into this false sense that we had moved to a certain point in our collective understanding,” she said. “But this year has taught me that the justice my ancestors and mother and father and grandfather fought for requires eternal vigilance.”
One of the biggest losses during the coronavirus crisis was the loss of hope, Powell said.
“As we watched the COVID-19 pandemic take hold of our globe and we watched the disparate ways that COVID-19 was impacting populations and as we watched the upticks in racialized violence committed largely against Black and brown people in our nation, I think we all would be untruthful if we said that we remained steadfastly optimistic in those moments,” she said. “So I think a little bit of our collective hope was dashed.”
Despite the challenges, Powell said she has learned that “love wins in the end.”
“People united will never be defeated … our belief in our shared humanity will always win, even in the face of what seems like insurmountable challenges,” she said.
No ‘new normal’
Lisa Zapatka, regional chief nursing officer for Trinity Health of New England, said the disruption of daily rituals and routines, and the ways that she and her colleagues coped with that, was a key lesson she took from the first year of the pandemic.
“As a nurse, when we care for patients, we need to care for the whole person. And I think we had to take into consideration for each other and for our colleagues that not only were our rituals and routines disrupted on the front lines … but [also that] all of us were impacted on the home front, too,” she said. “A lot of our colleagues have young children, kids in school, and that was disrupted. They had partners who lost jobs; they had deaths in their families. And I think this was not just a community in how the hospital deals with the surge, it was a total impact on both the front lines and the home front for everyone.
“That was a lesson learned early, that we really had to keep that in focus and really care not only for the whole person as the patient, but also the whole person as a colleague.”
The time that everyone has lost is one of the most tragic parts of the pandemic, Zapatka said.
“It’s time we’re never going to get back – time with family, time with friends,” she said. “And it might be forever for some people who experienced a death in their family, either from COVID or from a death where they just could not be near someone they loved.”
The COVID-19 crisis has also brought an end to “linear thinking,” she said.
“There’s no more, ‘This is the way we do things,’ or starting a sentence with, ‘Normally, this is how we would approach that,’” Zapatka said. “We have to think very differently on how to problem solve and how to overcome challenges. … There is no ‘normal’ and no ‘new normal.’ We have to approach things very differently.”
The importance of collaboration
Department of Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros, a career veteran of the agency who recently announced the closure of Northern Correctional Institution, said COVID-19 made clear how vital it was that state agencies work together to weather an unprecedented public health crisis.
“One lesson that emerged early on, and took on an increasingly important role, during the pandemic was the importance and necessity of collaboration. Whether it was with other state agencies like the Department of Public Health, municipal leaders, community providers, medical institutions, or even partnering with local businesses to provide a safe place to stay, it was clear that we were all in this together. Relying on each other was essential in ensuring that we would make it through the initial COVID-19 onslaught,” Quiros said.
“It’s not that prior to the pandemic, I did not realize — or had not experienced — the importance of collaboration, but the concept had never quite been put to the test like this before,” he added. “If there can be – dare I say — a silver lining in what we have gone through, it is: first, that I am blessed to work with an incredible group of people who once again proved they can rise to meet and overcome any challenge; and secondly, that we will continue to strengthen these collaborations — as well as work to create new ones — moving forward as we head towards what will be the new normal.”
The next pandemic
Dr. David Emmel, an ophthalmologist and chair of the Connecticut State Medical Society’s Committee on Legislation, said he hopes the lessons learned during this pandemic help to prevent another one.
“I hope we’ve learned that we’re all in this together and that if we don’t pull together, we’re not going to get out of this together,” he said. “The importance of wearing masks is not so much to protect the individual as to protect the people around us. I hope moving forward that people retain that.
“We need to be prepared for the next pandemic,” Emmel added. “The experts have been telling us for many years that a pandemic would recur … this is not going to be the last. I hope we take lessons forward in terms of how to be better prepared and to behave in a more concerted and better way right from the beginning.”
Missing out on face-to-face time with patients has been among the most difficult losses of the last year.
“We’ve all missed the physical contact with our patients, the ability to sit down in a room one-to-one with somebody to be able to read their body language, their expressions, and really take in the sum total of what they’re experiencing,” Emmel said.
Living with a record
Gus Marks-Hamilton, the ACLU of Connecticut’s interim campaign manager, said the pandemic has given him time to reflect on the time he spent incarcerated and made him grateful for how his life has changed since he was released from prison.
“Over the past year, I’ve often thought about how scary it would be to be locked up, without the ability to protect yourself, in the midst of a pandemic. I think a lot about how fortunate I am to be employed so I can support myself and pay my bills. At that basic level, it has never felt more vital and immediate in terms of what people need in order to survive. For people that are living with a record, it’s become more challenging than ever, because being able to find employment was already difficult before the pandemic,” Marks-Hamilton said.
“A lot of people reentering their communities find work in the food service industry, and that has been one of the hardest-hit fields in terms of jobs in the past year,” he added. “I know a lot of people who have shown unbelievable resiliency and determination to rebuild their lives, but they were already struggling to get by before COVID-19. It makes our work to protect people from being discriminated against based on their record even more relevant now, because of how COVID-19 has exacerbated the barriers and stigma that people face.”
Losing a year of school
Kathleen Gilbert, a social worker at Darien High School, said the pandemic has been traumatic for students, causing them to lose much of what oriented their lives.
“In addition to not being in school, there’s the isolation of being home. Sometimes kids couldn’t get together with friends, so the social isolation,” Gilbert said. “Family isolation because different generations weren’t necessarily getting together. So it was a year of loss. It was a year of a lot of things that didn’t happen and that were challenging.”
Glibert added that she has had to accept the limitations the pandemic imposed on her job. Having to talk to the students she works with while wearing a mask hasn’t been easy, and neither has trying to connect with them about sensitive subjects via Zoom, but she said she and other social workers have become “unbelievably creative.”
“I’ve been running groups with three kids on Zoom and the rest of them in the classroom. I mean, you’re trying to be as innovative and as personal as you can. It is critical,” Gilbert said. “I’ve been very concerned about the isolation imposed by this and making sure, in my work, that I stay connected to kids. Even kids on full remote so they don’t feel forgotten.”
The struggles of the poor
Sheldon Toubman, an attorney who represents low-income residents struggling to access health care, said the pandemic has made it more difficult for his clients to do anything — whether it be go to a doctor or do their banking.
“I think the reality is that there are probably more needs that we don’t hear about. The pandemic makes everything much more difficult for everybody, but particularly for low income people. Doors are closed, offices are, it’s just much more difficult to get things done. At the same time, the need has increased,” said Toubman, a staff attorney with New Haven Legal Assistance. “During the pandemic, many people are just putting off care. Now it has been happening for a year.”
While the state is not kicking people off Medicaid during the pandemic — a condition Congress put on the states getting increased federal Medicaid reimbursements — other safety net programs do require people to be renewed. That’s proving to be challenging for some of his clients struggling with internet access, and the state call center has long waits.
“It’s so much harder to get anything done, since a lot of stuff now is online. So if you need to get something from your bank, an ID, whatever. That’s all online, but low income people have less technology, less access to that kind of stuff. And therefore, they are more likely to have to rely upon the call center,” he said.
Casey Cobb, a professor whose research focuses on education reform and leadership at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, said one of the first things educators learned at the start of the pandemic was that there were serious inequities in access to technology.
“I think it just revealed some of the deep inequities that have existed but didn’t really surface until it was forced to,” Cobb said. “So that was one of the main things that we’ve learned. I think a lot of schools adjusted very quickly and really made new efforts and creative efforts to keep contact with their families and their kids — with home visits in a safe manner and bringing food to families in need.”
He explained that because schools had to get creative throughout this last year when it came to moving classes remotely, new opportunities opened up for teaching and learning and schools now have the capability to switch online quickly.
Cobb also said home and school connections were strengthened this last year. He added that this opened up new perspectives among teachers and administrators about some of the challenges their students face, which has helped them not only with teaching but connecting with the students in ways they hadn’t before.
“Whatever policies that have changed, the students have become more at the center of teaching and learning because schools had to … go and reach them,” Cobb said.