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Lamont: ‘Super-infectious strain’ threatens efforts to contain COVID

Originally posted at The News-Times

More cases of the highly infectious COVID strain are threatening the state’s efforts to contain the disease, while older adults are still struggling to make appointments to get vaccinated, the governor said Monday.

However, Gov. Ned Lamont predicted all residents 75 and over could be vaccinated within three weeks.

“We are racing to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as we can ahead of what could be this super-infectious strain,” Lamont said after health officials identified four new cases — bringing the statewide total to eight — of the highly contagious United Kingdom variant.

Lamont also is seeking an extension of his COVID-19-related executive orders to April 20. Majority Democrats on a key legislative committee had previously extended his powers to Feb. 9.

On Monday, 5,817 new cases of COVID-19 were reported over the previous three days. The new cases were found among 123,037 new tests, for a positivity rate of 4.73 percent. There were 10 more hospitalizations, increasing the statewide total to 1,068.

The death toll now hovers just below 7,000, with an additional 92 deaths over the weekend, bringing the statewide total to 6,911.

The new cases of the U.K. variant was found in patients from New Haven and Oxford.

“This new strain, which is considered to be more easily transmitted, is spreading quickly throughout the world, and it’s highly likely that these are not the only eight cases in Connecticut,” Lamont warned. “That is why it is so important that everyone continues taking precautions to prevent transmission of this disease.”

Lamont said he will ask for the extension of his executive orders to April 20 because he believes by then the state will have a “really good handle” on vaccinations. He said the state should also have a better understanding of the number of vaccines it can expect to receive weekly from the federal government, as well as the impact of the U.K. variant.

He said he wanted to avoid the “herky jerky” effect that letting his executive orders expire on Feb. 9 could have on the state’s economy as well as public health. The governor later clarified that he did not intend to simply let the orders expire on April 20, but would reassess them at that time, since the General Assembly will be in session until at least June 9. In the meantime, Lamont said if the legislature objects to any of his orders in particular, they should pass a bill to change them.

On Monday night, minority Republicans in the General Assembly requested a March 1 termination of Lamont’s executive powers, if he could provide enough reasons to extend them that long.

“Simply put, we’ve reached a point where the need for a deliberative process when making decisions and developing policy requires public input,” House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora of North Branford and Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly of Stratford wrote in a letter to the governor. “Unfortunately, in our view the continued exercise of emergency powers has become a matter of convenience, rather than a matter of emergency.”

They called for an end of the 100-person limit on indoor church services and an extension of Lamont’s powers only to March 1, if he comes up with good reasons.

Max Reiss, Lamont’s communications director, discounted the opinion of the Republican caucuses, which are 97-54 and 24-12 in the House and Senate, respectively.

“Seeing that Republicans do not view the COVID-19 pandemic as an emergency is troubling to say the least, especially considering how the federal government, and every state that border Connecticut continue to treat this with the seriousness it deserves,” Reiss said.

Earlier Monday, Lamont acknowledged there have been major obstacles for those 75 and over to register for the COVID vaccine, but he expects the glitches will be overcome as more health professionals reach out to seniors, and the United Way 211 phone lines accept more calls.

After greeting some of the hundreds of older adults in cars lined up at a mass-vaccination center near Rentschler Field in East Hartford, a former Pratt & Whitney airfield, Lamont projected on Monday that all of those 75 and over may be inoculated within the next two-to-three weeks.

For now, Lamont said the state will continue to receive about 46,000 doses of vaccine each week.

“This site right here can vaccinate all the doses we get over the course of a week right now, and if we can double, triple, quadruple the number of doses coming into Connecticut, we can double, triple and quadruple the number of people getting vaccinated every day,” Lamont said, stressing that local senior centers and health centers are being asked to call the DPH or even his office, to arrange delivery of vaccines.

“It’s a supply issue,” Lamont told reporters during an outdoor news conference attended by Acting Public Health Commissioner Deidre Gifford, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Community Health Center President and CEO Mark Masselli and state Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford.

“I think we’re going to go through the 75-and-above over the next two to three weeks, so we’re making good progress there,” he said. “We may be getting a little bit of good news on Moderna. We may see a few more vaccines there. Pfizer told me that they could have the capacity to double what they’re producing over the course of the next 30 to 45 days. I think there is a trend line in the right direction.”

State officials concede that many eligible people are having trouble getting reservations, but more providers will be active later this week. Those 75 and over comprise 7 percent — about 270,000 — of the state’s 3.5 million population. About 25 percent of them have been inoculated in the 120 sites statewide.

Josh Geballe, Lamont’s chief operating officer, said the federal Vaccine Administration Management System has proven difficult to navigate for older adults who are not technologically savvy. Most of the complaints, however, have been over the lack of available appointments.

Lamont said health care providers who administer the shots are asking for more than 150,000 doses each week.

In all, 308,502 doses of vaccine have been administered, including 42,555 who received both shots.

Gifford said the United Way last week doubled the number of people staffing the 211 line.

“Obviously, the demand is high and they’ll be adding even more people this week,” Gifford said, adding that health care providers are also contacting their eligible patients. “We understand that there have been some challenges in the appointment-making. We have been on it pretty much 24/7. We don’t have enough vaccine to vaccinate everyone who wants it right now.”

She said that only a small percentage of people, such as some teachers, have received the vaccine ahead of schedule.

“The vast, vast majority of everybody with an appointment is over the age of 75,” she said. Those under-75 in the line of cars at Rentschler Field parking lot included health care workers who remain eligible from an earlier phase of the process. Later this week, an interactive map showing where vaccines will be offered will be posted on the DPH website.

Blumenthal said he expects more vaccines to become available, but said President Joe Biden is confronting the “failures” left by the Trump administration. He praised Lamont for helping set the national standards for the state’s percentage of people vaccinated.

“Donald Trump cost us time,” he said. “Donald Trump’s falsehoods and failures cost Connecticut and the country time in fighting this pandemic and administering this vaccine. Joe Biden inherited a black box and a bare cupboard. The black box was a complete lack of reliable information, particularly as to the science that underlied this pandemic effort. And the bare cupboard was the lack of vaccine.”

The nation, he said, now has the facts to fight the pandemic, noting that sites are opening throughout the state, including Hillhouse High School in New Haven and Post University in Waterbury. He wants the next round of pandemic relief to include at least $20 billion for vaccines.

“What we need now and Joe Biden is doing it, is a massive national vaccine strategy that gives Connecticut the vaccine supplies it needs, to provide these folks in line here with the life-saving immunity that is safe and effective,” Blumenthal said. “The biggest thing you can do is tell others that it is safe and effective.”

On Monday, Walgreens announced selected outlets in the state will accept reservations from those 75 and over, subject to supply availability. Participating pharmacies include Walgreens in Litchfield, Thomaston, Torrington and the Terryville neighborhood of Plymouth.

COVID vaccine available by appointment only. Click for more information. Interested in becoming a volunteer vaccinator? Click here.