Health Official 'Proud' Of Newtown's Efforts To Reduce COVID-19 Transmission
Locally, Newtown’s Health District Director Donna Culbert is echoing some of the same sentiments Dr Anthony Fauci, America’s leading epidemiologist, said about much of Connecticut as the state weathered its first full week of August dealing with a devastating tropical storm and the ongoing pandemic.
Dr Fauci appeared alongside Governor Ned Lamont during an August 6 press briefing, spending most of the allotted hour fielding questions. By coincidence, Fauci appeared the day the governor released metrics to guide schools on resuming classroom education, one of the most complex and emotionally fraught decisions confronting public officials and parents since the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus.
The physician and immunologist, who has served as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, was quick to say he had confidence in Lamont’s decision.
“It would be presumptuous of me to come into the state of Connecticut and talk about what the governor and what the officials should do,” Fauci said. “I know I’ve worked now with the governor for several months, and I think he’s perfectly capable of making that decision.”
Health Director Donna Culbert said the latest virus stats from Newtown, while much higher than she would like, still reflect a relatively low infection rate. But she tempered that with a Fauci-like reminder about the importance of wearing face masks, washing hands, practicing appropriate distancing, and minimizing group contacts — especially indoors.
“I’m proud of them,” she said of Newtown residents taking these precautions, “but we all gotta keep it up.”
According to the latest state Department of Public Health (DPH) information, Newtown has seen 257 positive virus cases that have resulted in 44 deaths.
As of August 5 at 8:30 pm, the COVID-19 cases reported among Connecticut residents total 50,245, including 48,273 laboratory-confirmed and 1,972 probable cases. Sixty-six patients were currently hospitalized with confirmed cases, and as of that report, there have been 4,437 COVID-19-associated deaths.
While Fairfield County still leads the state with 17,926 positive/suspected coronavirus cases, followed by neighboring New Haven County with 13,128 cases, neither county registered as many virus-related deaths as Hartford county, which had 1,414 among its 12,745 cases. By August 6, Fairfield County had registered 1,406 deaths and New Haven County had 1,104 deaths.
During his virtual Connecticut visit, Fauci — whose daughter is a school teacher in New Orleans — said Connecticut currently has “the upper hand” in fighting the virus, broadly hinting that a return to school with strict rules on masks and social distancing is advisable.
“My approach is always, and I’ll say it whether I’m in Connecticut or in any other place, that the default position should be to try, as best as you possibly can, to open up the schools for in-person learning,” Fauci said. “It’s important for the children because of the psychological benefit and in some places, even for the nutrition of children who rely on the breakfast and lunches in school for proper nutrition.”
Fauci warned, however, that no plan was likely to remain unchanged for the school year.
“You need to be very flexible, with the primary motivating force being the safety and welfare of the children and the teachers,” he said.
The most troubling metric on his mind on the day of Fauci’s appearance, Lamont said, was a spike in cases among teens that he attributed in part to parties.
“I’m aggravated by these parties I keep hearing about, one up here in northeast Connecticut,” Lamont told reporters after an event at UConn in Storrs. “We’ve had more infections of young people the last five days than they’ve had in the last three months, and it’s outrageous. And you’re putting your family and your community at risk.”
SNAP, Housing Assistance
On August 5, the governor’s office announced that Connecticut’s Department of Social Services will be providing $16.4 million in Emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to nearly half of Connecticut’s SNAP participants on Friday, August 14. This is in addition to the $84.5 million in emergency benefits disbursed in April, May, June, and July.
Authorized by the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act of 2020, the extra food benefits are going to more than 108,200 households not currently receiving the maximum benefits allowed for their household size. This means that all households enrolled in SNAP will receive the maximum food benefit allowable for their household size, even if they are not usually eligible for the maximum benefit.
*The Department of Social Services expects that more than 108,200 of 225,600 SNAP-participating households statewide will receive emergency benefits in August.
*With this additional $16.4 million allocation by the US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, emergency benefits are totaling over $100.9 million in additional SNAP assistance statewide during April, May, June, July, and August, with commensurate spending in the food economy.
*The average emergency benefit amount a household will see on August 14 is $153.
*All participating households also receive their normal SNAP benefits on the first three days of each month as usual.
On July 30, the Connecticut Department of Housing and the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority launched a new website to help manage the eligibility and screening process for two new programs that provide housing assistance amid the COVID-19 crisis.
The Temporary Rental Housing Assistance Programs (TRHAP) offers rental assistance, while the Temporary Mortgage Assistance Program (T-MAP) offers mortgage assistance for those struggling to pay their housing costs due to the job loss, reduction of work, furlough, or closing of business as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Details on TRHAP and T-MAP program eligibility can be accessed by CLICKING HERE
Housing Commissioner Seila Mosquera-Bruno said the call center opened on July 15 and the number of calls was overwhelming.
“Busy signals and long hold times were frustrating for everyone,” she said. “Callers must answer a series of questions on eligibility, so each call takes several minutes. We realized pretty quickly that we were going to need another option, and adding a web portal was best the solution.”
Connecticut Housing Finance Authority CEO Nandini Natarajan said the criteria to qualify for T-MAP requires homeowners to provide more information.
“Instead of holding for the call center, homeowners can go to the website at any time and answer a series of questions to see if they qualify for the program. Then they can decide if they want take the next step to apply for the assistance,” she said. “The website will also direct people to other resources if they do not qualify for either program.”
T-MAP and TRHAP have $10 million each to assist people struggling with housing costs. With rent extensions, forbearance and eviction moratoriums, and other relief measures ending soon, these programs are designed to help people remain in their homes while they regain their financial stability.
High Extended Benefits
On August 4, Connecticut Department of Labor (CT DOL) Commissioner Kurt Westby announced that the state’s continued pandemic-related high unemployment rate triggered the start of high extended benefits. Primarily federally funded, the “trigger on” to the high extended benefits program occurs when the state’s unemployment rate averages eight percent or higher for three consecutive months.
It offers claimants an additional seven weeks of extended benefits for a total of 20 weeks, and it extends the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program for another seven weeks for a total of 46 weeks.
“Expanding benefits will help cover people whose eligibility for extended benefits was due to expire at the end of September,” Westby said. “It builds some stability into the unemployment safety net for the long-term unemployed. With the expiration of the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Program last week, many claimants are seeing a large decline in their benefits — one that Connecticut cannot remedy without federal action. This extension of benefits will help workers for as long as the state remains above the three-month average threshold.”
Claimants will be notified in a letter from the US DOL that their extended benefits will be in place for 20 weeks rather than the standard 13 weeks. Claimants must continue to file their weekly certification, but will not be asked to complete any separate applications.
High extended benefits began August 2 and remain in place until the three-month average for state unemployment falls below eight percent. When the state “triggers off” of the high extended benefits program, claimants who have received 13 weeks of extended benefits will receive two additional weeks before benefits are ended.
Connecticut’s unemployment rate averaged 9.2% over the past three months, although the state’s economist indicates that the actual unemployment rate is much higher, estimated between 16% and 17%, due to a survey data collection issue that federal Bureau of Labor Statistics is working to correct.
Under the state’s public health emergency issued March 10, Connecticut broadened the established “suitable work” guidelines that allowed certain workers to decline return-to-work orders if they had Centers for Disease Control-defined health vulnerabilities. The state expanded the guideline to allow certain workers to decline return-to-work orders if a household member had the health vulnerabilities.
With Connecticut in Phase 2 of reopening, the state is going back to the established guidelines. Now, the guidance relates solely to the employee.
If a worker who is at higher risk for the virus under CDC guidance is called back to work, they may decline that offer and maintain eligibility for benefits.
The worker may not decline that offer and remain eligible for benefits if they do not fall under the CDC guidance unless sufficient cause otherwise exists as specified in the law. This change does not does not impact the commissioner’s waiver on looking for work.
For the most up-to-date information from the State of Connecticut on COVID-19, including an FAQ and other guidance and resources, residents are encouraged to visit ct.gov/coronavirus.
For general questions that are not answered on the website, call 211 for assistance, or text CTCOVID to 898211.
Newtown residents can access municipal information at newtown-ct.gov (click on the red banner at the top of the page). Check newtownbee.com for ongoing coverage, and follow The Newtown Bee’s Facebook and Twitter pages for breaking news and emergency updates.