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Newtown Sees COVID-19 Cases Double Over Last Six Weeks As New Variant Arrives In State



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In a little more than six months since Newtown saw its first positive COVID-19 case last spring and the week of Thanksgiving, Newtown Health Director Donna Culbert saw the numbers begin escalating upwards.

Despite all efforts to convince community members to follow prescribed methods to reduce transmission, over the last six weeks Culbert has seen the roughly 490 cases she had tallied November 20 nearly double, with more than 960 cases on record locally as of January 6.

If that trend continues — and it is expected to, as a holiday period surge arrives in the coming few weeks — Newtown will likely cross the 1,000 case mark in short order.

At the same time, Governor Ned Lamont has just announced the development of two cases of the COVID-19 variant B.1.1.7 — the same variant initially discovered in the United Kingdom.

The two individuals are between the ages of 15 and 25 and both reside in New Haven County. Both individuals recently traveled outside Connecticut — one to Ireland and the other to New York State — and both developed symptoms within three to four days of their return.

Genetic sequencing of the virus has confirmed that the two cases are unrelated. The individuals’ specimens were collected earlier this month and subsequently tested positive.

To determine if the UK variant is present in Connecticut, the State Public Health Laboratory (SPHL) started an enhanced surveillance testing strategy last week. The SPHL is working with Yale and Jackson Laboratories to conduct genomic sequencing on portions of COVID-19 positive specimens submitted to the SPHL by clinical diagnostic laboratories in the state.

The genomic sequencing of the individuals’ samples was conducted by Yale, and the SPHL was notified when the UK variant was discovered. The Connecticut Department of Public Health has notified the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the cases.

Both persons were interviewed by contact tracers soon after they were diagnosed and their close contacts were identified at that time, according to Lamont’s Thursday afternoon release.

They are in the process of being re-interviewed by public health officials in light of the identification of the UK variant as the cause of their illnesses. One individual has completed their self-isolation period, and the other is self-isolating at their home and will remain there until they are ten days past the onset of symptoms and they are symptom free.

“As we said last week, given the speed of this new strand of the virus and its identification in several states throughout our country, we presumed it was already in our state and this information this morning confirms that fact,” Lamont said.

“This another reason why everyone should continue taking precautions to prevent transmission of this disease, including wearing face coverings and practicing social distancing. The health of Connecticut residents remains our top priority, and our public health officials will continue to closely monitor these cases and any other developments with this contagious virus,” he added.

“The U.K. variant is widely assumed to be more highly transmissible than other strains of the virus,” Connecticut Public Health Acting Commissioner Dr Deidre Gifford said. “However, our current vaccines should be effective against this strain, and we continue to urge everyone who is currently eligible to get the vaccine to do so.”

Dr Gifford said not everyone who tests positive will know whether they have this particular strain of the virus, so it is imperative for people to continue to follow all the public health guidance — continue to wear masks, social distance, and avoid gatherings with anyone outside your household.

“And if you test positive for COVID-19,” she added, “you must isolate and take all precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.”

While associated with a steep rise in COVID-19 cases in the UK, the variant is not assumed to be more deadly, nor is it expected that it will have a significant impact on vaccine effectiveness.

Local Transmission Surge

Culbert said she is attributing the nearly doubling of Newtown’s COVID-19 cases since Thanksgiving week primarily to family gatherings, and that a significant number of those newest cases are developing among family members sharing the same living space.

“Yes, unfortunately we’re seeing a lot of in-household transmission,” Culbert told The Newtown Bee, January 6. “Between colder weather forcing more folks indoors, dry uncirculated air, and lack of separation once someone is shedding the virus, the numbers are climbing.”

The health official empathizes with residents who are in potentially dangerous proximity.

“I know separation is hard on people,” she said. “My major concern is for those currently affected and those recovering to be able to get better — to get support, and to stay home.”

To that end, Culbert is reminding residents of a robust network of officials and volunteers locally who can help make even a large family’s isolation a bit easier.

“We have that support in place for folks who may need groceries or other necessary items, or who are just tapped out,” she said, referring those residents to Newtown Social Services.

Culbert is concurrently working to the best of her ability to coordinate vaccination logistics given the information she receives, and that has been changing day to day. She has so far been making vaccine enrollment information available to qualifying candidates in local fire, police, and EMS service.

“We enabled them to register, and to do that as quickly as possible,” Culbert said, admitting that as vaccine information is issued from varying media, state, and municipal sources across the region, it is causing “a lot of vaccine anxiety.”

“What people do need to know is that it could be weeks or months before they are able to access a vaccine depending on a lot of factors, some that we don’t even know yet,” she said. “But I am looking forward to vaccinating a lot of people once we start getting the supplies.”

In the meantime, “Newtown residents and anyone in their households need to keep up the hard work of preventing transmission,” Culbert added. “I know they are tired — who isn’t tired of COVID by now?”

While the number of COVID related deaths has once again plateaued locally for several weeks — holding at 52 — infections and testing of Newtown residents continues to increase. By January 6, the local case count had reached 964 among 28,834 residents tested.

At that time the total of COVID-19 cases reported among Connecticut residents was 199,454, including 187,749 laboratory-confirmed and 11,705 probable cases. Laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations were at 1,139, and the state had registered 6,230 COVID-19-associated deaths.

More On Vaccines

One day earlier, the state Department of Public Health issued the following reminders to local health care providers: “As you know, Connecticut is currently in Phase 1a of the COVID vaccine roll-out. We want to encourage all health care personnel who have not already done so to schedule an appointment to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.”

According to CT DPH, the following steps should be taken:

*Any health care provider organization not already registered in VAMS should designate one representative to complete the survey at ct.gov/covidvaccine/employers — this will enable that employer to register all employees in their workforce to schedule a vaccine appointment. You should receive access to VAMS to upload rosters within 24 hours of submitting the form.

*Community providers or individuals not affiliated with medical groups can register as unaffiliated individuals at this link: dphsubmissions.ct.gov/Independent. A small practice (e.g., fewer than ten people) that is having trouble registering in VAMS can also have each individual register through this link.

*Please make time for your employees to receive vaccine — most evening and weekend clinic slots are currently filled.

Any provider with questions is asked to submit a ticket to the DPH Helpdesk at dph-cthelpdesk.ct.gov/.

For details about Phase 1a eligibility, visit ct.gov/covidvaccine/access.

Regional vaccination locations with available appointment slots that were filling up quickly as of January 5 included CHC (Community Health Center) Waterbury, and Waterbury Hospital, Griffin Hospital (Main Hospital), Derby, and the Fairfield Health Department, Fairfield.

As of Monday, January 4, hospitals and long-term care facilities in Connecticut reported to the state that they have administered the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to 75,180 people. All of the doses under this first phase of the state’s COVID-19 vaccine program were being administered to people in the health care workforce and to residents and staff of long-term care facilities, including nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

The Lamont administration estimated that all nursing homes in Connecticut will have finished administering the first dose of the vaccine to their residents and staff by Friday, January 8. Assisted living facilities began administering the vaccine Monday as well.

This was a glimmer of good news for American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) President and CEO Mark Parkinson, who said in a CNN interview that many long-term care providers have said their vaccine clinics have resulted in 95 percent of residents getting vaccinated.

Connecticut is among the first eight states in the United States that have administered the vaccine to more than two percent of its population.

The elderly population has a much higher risk for getting very sick, being hospitalized, or dying from COVID-19, thus contributing to the disproportionate affect the pandemic has had on long-term care residents, according to the AHCA/NCAL. Forty percent of all COVID-related deaths in the United States have occurred in long-term care facilities.

Vaccination is the best tool providers have to save lives and expedite the reopening of facilities, the agency added. The US Food and Drug Administration has determined the vaccines to be safe and effective, and the side effects are minimal.

The response to vaccination efforts thus far has been overwhelmingly positive, Parkinson said.

A shopper goes against a requested directional flow, as indicated by the arrow on the floor January 4 at the Newtown Big Y. Creating one-way traffic within store aisles was among the earliest measures taken nearly ten months ago when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the state. While some stores continue to control the flow of customer traffic (or try…), others have removed the restrictions put into place earlier as safety measures to lessen the spread of coronavirus. —Bee Photo, Hicks
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