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Lawmakers Begin Mapping Strategy to Combat Coronavirus as Hundreds in CT are Monitored for the Illness

The coronavirus has the potential to be more deadly and widespread than previously thought. (Courtesy of CTMirror.org)

Hundreds of Connecticut residents with symptoms are being monitored for the virus as state requests more tests from federal government.

By Keith M. Phaneuf, CTMirror.org

Connecticut lawmakers will begin the daunting task Friday of crafting a strategy to mobilize the public and private sectors to combat the coronavirus – an effort that comes as state health officials acknowledged hundreds of residents are being monitored for the illness.

The state Department of Public Health is aware of 200 people currently being monitored for the virus, said Max Reiss, spokesman for Gov. Ned Lamont. The governor was briefed Thursday by Renee Coleman-Mitchell, commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, and Dr. Matthew Carter, the state epidemiologist.

Reiss said it’s important to note the state is not monitoring these patients – they were told to remain at home for 14 days by the medical professionals from whom they sought care – and does not know if there are others who have exhibited symptoms and told to stay home.

“The 200 people are just the ones we were told about,” Reiss said. “The number could be higher.”

The state has tested 18 people for the illness so far; 13 of the tests were negative and five are pending. The governor’s office said Thursday night it has requested more tests from the federal government to comply with new guidance about which patients should be tested.

The public health department was provided with kits capable of testing slightly more than 500 patients. Officials are concerned that, because the new guidance set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention casts a broader net, the state will run out of tests.

The state’s testing lab in Rocky Hill has the capacity to conduct about 15-to-20 tests per day, Coleman-Mitchell said in a call Thursday. But Connecticut has entered into an arrangement to expand its testing capacity starting Monday by working in collaboration with Quest Diagnostics, the commissioner said, though she did not say by how much that capacity would grow.

While legislative leaders expressed confidence Thursday that a thorough, systemic response plan – which coordinates hundreds of public- and private-sector entities – can be accomplished, the first step is less complex: Set up a system to begin sharing information and distributing it to the public.

“We don’t want to frighten people,” said Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee. “We really just want to do this methodically so people know we are working to provide them the answers they want so they know they are safe.”

Three legislative panels will begin the process with a 9 a.m. forum with state agency leaders, hospital officials, and representatives from colleges and universities.

Lawmakers from public health will join the Appropriations and Higher Education and Employment Advancement committees for the joint forum at the Legislative Office Building. But leaders from all groups said they expect this is just the beginning of a process that will complement ongoing efforts in the Executive Branch, and ultimately include more legislative panels as well.

“Right now what we’re just trying to do is make sure those lines of communication are open, that everyone’s talking to one another,” said Sen. Mary Abrams, D-Meriden, co-chair of the Public Health Committee.

The coronavirus had claimed 11 American lives by mid-Thursday afternoon, and spread to at least 163 patients in 18 states, including New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

China remains the most deeply affected country, with more than 80,000 cases and 3,000 deaths as of Thursday afternoon.

Still, the pandemic raises a host of challenges for Connecticut and other states as they grapple with the coronavirus threat.

One of the most immediate is figuring out what preparations need to be made for prisons, hospitals, nursing homes, college campuses, and other locations where many people live in close quarters.

The latter is particularly challenging, said Rep. Greg Haddad, D-Mansfield, co-chair of the higher education committee.

Colleges and universities not only send students abroad, but their populations are melting pots that attract guests from all over the world.

“If this pandemic does grow, what plans might they be putting in place now for distance learning, how do we stay on course for training our students, even when congregating them together in a single place might not be the best practice?” Haddad asked.

But this type of question is just one example of the challenges Connecticut faces.

What types of testing may be needed? What role does state and local government play in overseeing this? What help might be needed in rural areas to make testing available? And who will pay for it?

Connecticut is guaranteed at least $4 million in federal assistance, and possibly more, under an aid package approved by Congress this week. U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, said on a news conference call Thursday evening that she estimates Connecticut would receive at least $7 million.

But there will certainly be a fiscal impact on Connecticut’s budget as well, likely in excess of $10 million, Osten said.

“We’re not going to be able to anticipate everything,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, the other co-chair of the Public Health Committee.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams bumps elbows with Gov. Lamont to show safe greeting practices and stop the spread of coronavirus. Adams paid a visit Monday to the state’s public health laboratory in Rocky Hill. Photo courtesy of Gov. Lamont’s Office

But there are two steps that have to be taken very soon, he said.

First, the legislature and Executive Branch must work jointly to set up protocols – a process to follow so that when a problem is identified, five different state agencies don’t try five different approaches to solve it.

Coleman-Mitchell said the state’s 2-1-1 Infoline will begin providing general information on the coronavirus starting Friday. In addition, households can learn more by visiting the Department of Public Health’s website at www.ct.gov/coronavirus

“We should be able to reassure municipalities, people who provide care for people, most importantly the average citizen in Connecticut,” Steinberg said. “They should be clear on what to do and what not to do and where to go when they have questions.”

Elizabeth Hamilton contributed to this story.

Reprinted with permission of The Connecticut Mirror. The author can be reached at [email protected].

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