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State and local officials address coronavirus

Waterford — Ledge Light Health District representatives met with Waterford officials at Town Hall on Monday morning to discuss coronavirus concerns.

According to Ledge Light Communicable Disease Prevention Supervisor Kris Magnussen, it was the first such meeting between the health district and one of the municipalities it covers. Ledge Light is the local health department for Groton, North Stonington, New London, Lyme, East Lyme, Old Lyme, Ledyard, Waterford and Stonington.

First Selectman Rob Brule called a meeting of the town's department heads, from human resources to police to the superintendent of schools, to hear Magnussen and LLHD Director of Health Stephen Mansfield discuss the basics of the virus.

While Mansfield said a vaccine is at least a year away, he said Ledge Light is prepared for mass vaccinations if necessary. The tenor of the presentation revolved around "if necessary" — the State Department of Education could close schools if necessary, the Senior Center may decide to cancel the St. Patrick's Day Luncheon on March 17 if deemed necessary.

Mansfield emphasized the volatile nature of the coronavirus and distributed a list of bullet points with information available at LLHD's website. He said that even though he updated the information Sunday, he had to do so again Monday morning.

Ledge Light's latest information, which comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, states tht community transmission of the coronavirus has occurred in multiple countries, including the U.S. The focus of mitigation efforts will include reducing transmission of disease, keeping health care systems functioning and establishing continuity plans for entities such as businesses or schools. There are only tracking requirements in place for travelers from China at the moment, though that could change. Local health districts are in charge of tracking.

"The severity of the disease and extent of the outbreak will dictate which mitigation efforts will be put in place," the document reads. It also advises reconsideration for international travel plans for students and residents.

Superintendent Thomas Giard said Waterford schools don't have plans to travel outside the U.S.

Magnussen said town departments should make sure not to spread misinformation and to get  information from the CDC, Ledge Light or the state Department of Health.

"Prevention isn't exciting," Magnussen said. "We should all be washing our hands. We shouldn't be going to work if we're sick."

Masks, Magnussen said, are mostly helpful to people who are already sick, and healthy people shouldn't be hoarding them. She also noted that many Americans can't afford to stay home from work.

As the New York Times wrote on Sunday: "Nobody wants employees to come to work if they are sick or have been exposed to the virus, but U.S. workers are less likely to be covered by a paid sick leave policy than those in other developed countries."

Magnussen recommended putting signs out saying "If you're sick, don't visit us." She and Mansfield also recommended social distancing and against holding large public gatherings.

They both emphasized common sense: Mansfield brought up Vice President Mike Pence, appointed by President Donald Trump to lead the administration's response to the coronavirus outbreak, wiping his nose just before shaking hands with U.S. officials. Mansfield said it "didn't send a great message."

In discussing how publicly available masks are running out of supply around the country, Magnussen mentioned the flu.

"People should be more concerned about the flu," Magnussen said. "It's not too late to take a flu vaccine."

Ledge Light distributed a document that recommended ways to prevent the spread of coronavirus, such as educating the public about general preparedness, encouraging people to stay home if ill, placing hand sanitizer in public locations and ensuring proper cleaning in public buildings. The document had specific recommendations for schools: encourage students to clean hands before eating, send a reminder to parents to keep ill children home, clean "high-touch" areas often and isolate sick children with masks on until they're picked up.

"We're in a holding pattern, monitoring the situation right now as it progresses," Brule said. "I do want people to know we're working on this, we're thinking about it, we're planning for it."

Giard said he's aiming to meet Ledge Light standards in preventing the coronavirus.

State response

Also on Monday, Gov. Ned Lamont held a public health briefing with Commissioner for the Connecticut Department of Public Health Renée Coleman-Mitchell, Sen. Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Surgeon General Vice Adm. Jerome M. Adams. Coleman-Mitchell and Adams made the same recommendations Ledge Light made to the Waterford department heads. They also advocated for "elbow bumps" rather than handshakes for greetings.

Coleman-Mitchell said the state does not have any positive coronavirus cases.

"Our state lab has been approved as of Friday to do the testing for coronavirus," Coleman-Mitchell said. "As a result of that, this weekend, we did two tests for persons under investigations, and we're happy to report that those individuals were negative."

Adams, Lamont and Blumenthal tried to quell any panic related to the disease.

"We've seen an increase in cases in the U.S. over the weekend," Adams said. "The coronavirus is now, but we dealt with SARS, we dealt with MERS, we dealt with H1N1, and we literally all have a playbook that we are following to respond to the novel coronavirus."

In an effort to keep things in perspective, Adams said 18,000 people have died from the flu this year, with more than 60 such deaths in Connecticut.

Two positive cases for the coronavirus have been identified in Rhode Island.

Blumenthal offered a veiled jab at the Trump administration's coronavirus response during the briefing.

"The federal government could do very well to follow Connecticut's example and put professionals in charge of this effort at the federal level, not politicians, but professionals who respect science and will implement it and put science above politics," Blumenthal said.

s.spinella@theday.com

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