State expert warns of a return of COVID-19 in fall

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By Paul Hughes, Republican-American

State Epidemiologist Matthew Cartter talks about Connecticut’s updated COVID-19 cases on Friday. -PAUL HUGHES/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

HARTFORD — State Epidemiologist Matthew L. Cartter warned Tuesday to expect a return of coronavirus disease this fall as Gov. Ned Lamont prepares to relax public health orders as the initial outbreak peaks.

Cartter also cautioned that COVID-19 remains a deadly threat despite recent developments suggesting Connecticut is putting the worst of the first wave of the pandemic behind it.

“We certainly have seen a much slower spread of COVID-19 in the state of Connecticut than we thought we would see a month ago,” he said. “I am concerned, however. The trends are encouraging, but the number of cases that we still have are far too many, and we should not think that we are through this at this point in time.”

Hospitalizations decreased for the sixth consecutive day, while coronavirus cases and associated deaths continued to increase Tuesday.

The number of hospitalized patients dropped to 1,726 since Monday’s report, a net decline of 26 patients between new admissions and discharges.

“That is the trend line that gives us a green light when we think we can start thinking about reopening some of the sectors of the economy that are not open now,” Lamont said.

Public health officials reported 77 additional deaths related to COVID-19, bringing the total to 2,089. The fatalities included 350 residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, said Josh Geballe, Lamont’s chief operating officer.

Connecticut has one of the highest death rates in the country because the count includes people who tested positive for COVID-19 and probable deaths of untested people that are attributed to the disease, Cartter said.

“Many other states, including states around us, do not count probable deaths due to COVID-19 and are only reporting out laboratory-confirmed cases,” he said.

An additional 315 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported since Monday. Lamont said this was the lowest daily increase in weeks. Through Tuesday, 26,312 people have tested positive in the state.

The Naugatuck Valley Health District reported there have been 172 laboratory-confirmed cases of coronavirus in Naugatuck and 33 in Beacon Falls as of Tuesday. There has been one coronavirus-related death of a Naugatuck resident, a woman in her 80s, according to the health district.

On Tuesday, the Chesprocott Health District reported 33 laboratory-confirmed cases in Prospect. The number is two less than what the district reported on Monday.

Cartter said a second wave of COVID-19 is likely this fall, but he also said Connecticut will be better positioned to respond.

“We may have an antiviral treatment at that point in time, something that actually treats the infection, which would be a tremendous advantage,” he said. “We will not have a vaccine by the fall, but we will be in a better place. I don’t think any of us look forward to reentering quarantine the way we have, but it is something we need to be prepared for.”

STATE OFFICIALS OUTLINED PLANS for launching a voluntary statewide program scheduled for the second half of May to trace the contacts of people exposed to the coronavirus.

“Nothing is mandatory about this process, but, of course, the more people who participate the more effective it is,” Lamont said.

The effort will involve the Department of Public Health, the 64 local health departments and qualified, trained volunteers. The state and Microsoft are partnering to develop a contract-tracing platform to assist with case investigations.

Public health officials said they’ll use a state database to contact residents who have tested positive by telephone, test message or email to ask about their illness and potential exposure to other people. Next, the potential exposures will be contacted via the telephone, text or email to inform them and request that they self-isolate or self-quarantine to prevent further community spread.

There are currently 300 contact tracers between the state and local health departments, and 400 to 500 trained volunteers are expected to assist them, said Kristen Soto, an epidemiologist with the Department of Public Health.

Cartter said the expectation is that testing capacity will increase and the rate of infection will subside enough by mid to late May that contact investigations could be done for all new positive cases. He said the effort will depend on public cooperation, and people have been generally cooperative in ongoing contact tracing efforts.

Lamont continued to say Tuesday that both testing and contact tracing will be integral to deciding when to lift various restrictions on businesses, social gatherings and the education system.

Cartter said Connecticut is now testing 4,000 people a week, and he estimated that number would have to increase to 50,000 a week by the end of May to see successful contact investigations.

As testing ramps up, decisions would have to be made about who gets tested first. Geballe said people in high-risk occupations and environments would likely be given first priority, such as health care workers and nursing home employees.

Elio Gugliotti contributed to this report.