State clears bulk of jobless claims, looking into contact tracing

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By Paul Hughes, Republican-American

HARTFORD — The state Department of Labor has processed more than 320,000 of the 397,000 unemployment claims that have been filed since mid-March.

The governor’s office announced Wednesday that the processing time has been reduced from approximately six weeks to three weeks, and the wait time should be down to a week within days.

The coronavirus outbreak resulted in a surge in unemployment claims not seen since the Great Recession, and the swelling volume overwhelmed the labor department’s antiquated processing system.

Tens of thousands of new filers were waiting four to six weeks because of the time involved in manually processing their claims. The labor department recently developed a software workaround that sped up the processing time.

The governor’s office reiterated that unemployment benefits will be retroactive to the date a person needed to apply.

The software upgrades also rectified a coding issue that had delayed the processing of $600 in supplemental weekly benefits that the federal government is providing for claims filed from March 29 through July 31.

The labor department previously reported those additional payments would be added this Friday.

The weekly benefit in Connecticut ranges from $15 to $649. With the additional federal payment, benefits will run from $615 to $1,249.

CONTACT TRACING, along with expanded testing for coronavirus disease, 2019 are going to be linchpins in the state’s plans for gradually reopening businesses and bring people back to work.

Gov. Ned Lamont declined to commit to a tri-state program with New York and New Jersey to trace the contacts of people exposed to the coronavirus outbreak to try to prevent further spread.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday that New York would work with neighboring Connecticut and New Jersey on a joint program.

He reported former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg will provide $10 million in funding, and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health will build an online curriculum and training program for contact tracers.

Lamont said the discussions have only just started, and he has yet to make a decision.

“I think it is too early to talk about that specifically, but what contact tracing does do is allow us to isolate the virus, slow down the rate of the spread,” he said.

Lamont said the state needs to do a better job of contracting tracing. He laid out parameters that will be followed in Connecticut.

“We are going to do it on an absolutely voluntary basis. We’re going to do it on an anonymous basis,” Lamont said.

He was also adamant that state officials will be in charge if Connecticut joins any regional collaboration.

“This is going to be a Connecticut operation, and we are going to do contact tracing very thoughtfully, doing everything we can to depress the rate of increase,” Lamont said.

He said the state effort will also be conducted in coordination with the 64 local and regional health districts.

The state Department of Public Health has been evaluating cloud-based platforms that could be used to trace the contacts of infected people for several weeks, said Josh Geballe, the governor’s chief operating officer.

“We’ve got a lot of exciting announcements to come on that in the near future,” he said.

Lamont said the state effort will also likely rely on telephone banks.

THE NUMBER OF CONFIRMED COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and fatalities continued to increase, according to the latest state figures Wednesday

Public health officials reported a 2,109 increase in laboratory-confirmed cases to 22,469 statewide. The number of patients tested increased to 69,918 with the addition of 5,726 more in the previous 24 hours.

An additional 121 deaths were reported since Tuesday. There have been 1,544 fatalities since the first death of the outbreak was announced on March 18.

The death count includes persons who tested positive for the coronavirus around the time of death, and untested persons whose death certificates list COVID-19 disease as a cause of death or a significant condition contributing to death.

The Naugatuck Valley Health District reported there have been 135 laboratory-confirmed cases of coronavirus in Naugatuck and 29 in Beacon Falls as of Wednesday. The health district this week reported the first coronavirus-related death of a Naugatuck resident, a woman in her 80s.

The Chesprocott Health District reported there have been 33 laboratory-confirmed cases in Prospect.

There was a net increase statewide of 23 hospitalized patients to 1,972 between admissions and discharges.

“That number continues to creep up, but still at a much slower place than we were a week or two ago, and that is really good news,” Lamont said.

He continued to say Wednesday that the hospitalization rate is going to guide his administration’s decision-making concerning the reopening of businesses and the relaxing of social distancing measures.

Lamont commented on the status of the COVID-19 outbreak at the end of his daily briefing Wednesday.

“I just want to say we’re most of the way through April. We knew April was going to be the toughest month in terms of the surge, and what we had to do to manage our way through the pandemic,” he said. “I think this state is doing pretty well.”

Elio Gugliotti contributed to this article.