Surging COVID test demand ripples through CT health, politics, schools, economy

The explosion of new coronavirus infections and hospitalizations has led to an unprecedented demand for testing in every corner of Connecticut, which has often overwhelmed health care and government officials scrambling to keep up.

Public demand for coronavirus tests has reached a fever pitch in recent days — with demand increasing at least sixfold in one month for one major health network — and the effects have stretched far beyond the medical world, from political strife to concerns about ensuring equal testing access controversies. About keeping public schools safely open.

In response, health care providers and state leaders in recent days have made a variety of pledges to expand in-person and home testing capacity.

Experts don’t expect the situation to stop anytime soon.

“We expect this demand to continue for some time,” said Dr. Ajay Kumar, chief clinical officer at Hartford Healthcare. “We’re seeing a huge demand for testing across the system.”

To keep up with this, some health organizations have rationalized their resources.

Yale New Haven Health, one of the state’s largest providers of personality tests, has begun limiting testing to people without symptoms. Another site, Trinity Health of New England’s testing site at Saint Francis Hospital, was closed because there were not enough staff to run tests after many became ill.

The desire for testing is driven by the increasing number of infections, particularly of the omicron variant, combined with the growing popularity of negative tests as a reminder of social and public events. On Friday, Connecticut’s daily COVID positivity rate reached a new high of 24.5 percent, while hospitalization continued to approach the record epidemic level recorded in April of 2020.

The state reported an average of 35,700 tests per day in the 15 days ending Friday, compared to an average of 23,300 tests in the 15 days beginning on Thanksgiving. However, this increase does not reflect what is likely to be millions of additional at-home tests purchased by the state and single residents.

Health officials stressed that in most cases the variant appears to cause more mild cases.

During a recent briefing with news reporters, Josh Jabali, the state’s chief operating officer, said the department’s efforts included asking the state’s existing test providers to add dates to their schedules as well as new locations.

The state is also striving to secure and distribute millions of at-home test kits, which are in short supply nationwide in both traditional retailers and online.

“We see the lines and hear the frustration,” said Jibal. “We are very focused on this.”

political problems

Ned Lamont’s efforts to get home testing kits into the hands of Connecticut residents got off to a rough start shortly before the new year. The state’s first supply of home test kits arrived later and in smaller numbers than originally expected after an earlier shipment was abruptly canceled, forcing local leaders to urgently reschedule distribution to residents.

His critics blasted the political flop, even as the administration succeeded in delivering 1.8 million at-home tests in the days that followed.

Republicans, including Themis Clarides, the former House GOP leader who is seriously considering running for governor this year, and the state’s GOP chief continue to blame Lamont for his failure to prepare for increased testing demand.

In an opinion piece in the Connecticut Post on Friday, Clarids said Lamont was “set in full swing” despite expectations that the Omicron variant “will disrupt this year’s holiday season.” She called on the governor to “recover and provide full transparency” about why the deal collapsed.

Later on Friday, Senator Eric Berthell, R-Wattertown, asked for a full account of the at-home test kits, which Lamont administration had “contractual agreements about” and when more tests would be delivered to cities and towns.

“Thousands of families still need and lack other reasonable alternatives to home testing – government Covid testing sites – because these sites are now overwhelmed,” Bertel said in a letter to Lamont. As a result, families are currently facing long waiting times and experiencing shortages with hundreds being rejected.

House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, of North Branford, said in a statement Tuesday that the confusion over the failed deal warrants further investigation.

“It sounds like a proper matter for the prosecutor [William] Tong’s office is investigating, and I think it’s a necessary step if the governor is to hope to rebuild some of the trust he’s lost during this disaster,” Candelora said.

Tong’s office did not say this week whether the Democratic attorney general had plans to investigate the matter.

Max Reese, the governor’s director of communications, said Friday that the administration continues to provide information as shipments arrive.

“We continue to work with suppliers to get more shipments into the country,” Reese said. “So far, we’ve done 1.8 million tests, which is, per capita, I think, the highest in the region.”

He said more tests were scheduled to be distributed on Saturday to early childhood teachers.

Tests but for whom?

It’s not just about the number of tests, but who gets them. The state’s Association of Community Health Centers charges that Connecticut’s test distribution system is again widening the gap between privileged and low-income residents of the state, many of whom are served by health centers.

“In the last round, we were at the table to help make decisions, and this time, we feel like an outsider,” Ken Lalim, CEO of Connecticut Community Health Center Association, said in an interview this week.

Late on December 21, when health centers requested funds to conduct more tests, Lamont’s administration said tests in place were sufficient.

Separately, organizations representing people with disabilities sued the state over access to the tests, which they said were distributed in a way that prevented their clients from receiving them.

And in schools, testing procedures in schools have also been the subject of controversy, with teacher unions and other critics saying more testing is needed in place — and even protocols in place rely on providing tests that can be easy. run out.

The plan is for any student who sends home sick, or gets sick at home, to have a test at home. In addition, tests are also conducted on students who are known to have been exposed to someone with COVID. Lamont’s administration distributed 490,000 tests to schools, but that amounts to less than one test per student and far less than one test per person when tens of thousands of teachers and other staff are included.

More tests were the first item in a list of nine demands made by teachers’ unions. At the moment, supplies appear to be adequate but management has not been able to promise a steady supply.

“Up to 60 percent of my members don’t have access to masks. More than 70 percent report they don’t have access to testing. It wasn’t this,” said Katie Dias, president of the Connecticut Education Association, at a news conference last week. It is the agreement.” “And I think we can all agree that this is not the workspace we want to be in. This is a major concern about how to safely run our schools across the state. What we saw is a real lack of plan.”

Hospitals report understaffing

Across the state, test site operators said they are working to increase the number of appointments they can apply.

Kumar, of Hartford Healthcare, said the network was testing roughly 250 people a day, on average, in early December. As of Tuesday morning, that daily figure had risen to between 1,500 and 2,000 people, Kumar said.

Kumar said testing runs at six command sites and nearly two dozen urgent care centers have the supplies they need readily available and labs can turn up results quickly after nearly two years of practice. But the network’s biggest challenge to adding more COVID-19 testing dates is finding people to work on its sites.

Despite that hurdle, the Health Network said Friday that it plans to open seven new testing trailers across the state next week, increasing its testing capacity by 25 percent. Health leaders said Friday that trailers are easier for employees and keep workers warm than the tents that were often used.

Yale New Haven Health performed about 20,000 test appointments per week a year ago. It now offers about 31,000 test appointments a week. But even this volume is not enough to meet the demand. A Yale New Haven Health spokesperson said 99 percent of the appointments were filled, noting that some appointments were booked for health care workers, first responders, patients undergoing scheduled procedures and others.

Dr. Scott Roberts, associate director of infection prevention at Yale New Haven Hospital, said the network has limited testing for people without symptoms.

“It’s the staff who do the tests,” he said. “We’ve had too many people, too many health care workers who have been infected and had to stay at home, so we’re prioritizing the individuals who are most at risk like people with symptoms, people who are vulnerable and who we need to know if they are” Positive after several days of exposure, and we don’t prioritize situations where we should really get tested but simply don’t have the capacity.”

Stamford Hospital offers 300 test appointments per day on its Bennett Medical Center campus, double 150 per day during the sluggish summer months. During the summer, same-day appointments for testing were readily available and not all appointments were taken, said Liz Longmore, senior vice president of mobile services and consumer and patient experience for the health system. Now, all appointments are booked for next week.

Longmore said Stamford Health also opened 300 daily appointments during the surge in cases last winter. But the demand for the same number of slots this season exceeds what the organization saw last year. So, she said, Stamford Health is hiring new staff in order to expand the testing capacity beyond the usual winter spell they’ve prepared for.

“We’ve made sure we have testing supplies in stock, and have staff in place, but we’re seeing higher demand than we saw last winter,” she said.

The list of COVID-19 testing sites published online by Connecticut and the United Way includes about 400 sites across the state, of which 116 are at no cost to patients.

Pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens, among the largest testing runs in Connecticut and across the United States, declined to answer specific questions about the number of appointments available to Connecticut residents.

“We have the stock and capacity to meet ongoing COVID-19 testing and vaccination needs, including in areas of high demand,” a CVS spokeswoman said.

But there were only two open appointments to schedule online for a lab diagnostic test at CVS locations anywhere in the Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport or Stamford areas as of Friday afternoon.

Jon Moritz, Jordan Nathaniel Finster, and Ken Dixon contributed to this report.

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