Lamont, state and local officials respond to coronavirus threat

State and local health officials said Wednesday they’re prepared for an outbreak of COVID-19, the potentially deadly novel coronavirus teetering on pandemic status.

Gov. Ned Lamont, speaking at a live-streamed news conference at the state emergency operations center in Hartford, offered assurances that the state Department of Public Health has been working to coordinate with the federal government and that local health departments, hospitals and schools in Connecticut are ready to cope with a rapidly changing situation.

“Yesterday, CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) upped the ante from containment to mitigation,” Lamont said. “This could be coming to our shores in a more aggressive way.”

He urged the public to visit the state webpage ct.gov/coronavirus for the latest information.

Since an outbreak of coronavirus disease began in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, in December, 15 COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed in the United States, none of them in Connecticut. Including repatriated cases, more than 50 U.S. cases have been reported, none fatal.

Lamont said DPH Commissioner Renée Coleman-Mitchell had traveled Wednesday to Washington to meet with other state and federal officials and had issued guidance to all kindergarten through 12th grade schools and local health departments for dealing with potential COVID-19 cases.

Coleman-Mitchell this week added coronavirus to the list of reportable diseases, requiring all physicians in Connecticut to report new cases or patients under investigation to the DPH, whose public health lab is scheduled to receive a kit that will enable it to test for coronavirus.

Matthew Cartter, the state epidemiologist, said containment measures largely involved monitoring travelers returning from China and other countries where cases of the coronavirus have been detected. He said no COVID-19 vaccine is likely to be available for at least a year and that no antiviral medications have been approved to treat it.

In New London, Lawrence + Memorial Hospital officials have long had plans in place to deal with an outbreak.

Denise Fiore, chief operating officer for L+M Healthcare, which includes L+M and Westerly hospitals, said officials affiliated with the entire Yale New Haven Health System have been participating in weekly conference calls for the past month in an effort to stay apprised of coronavirus developments and potential responses.

"We are treating this very seriously,” said Ron Kersey, L+M’s emergency management coordinator. “We’re closely monitoring the CDC and state and local regulations and guidelines. Hospitals have plans for pandemics; we’ve taken those plans out and we’ve reviewed them... We’re looking at our personal protection equipment to make sure we have enough.”

Such equipment includes the gowns, gloves and masks worn by health care providers who could be called upon to treat infected patients. Staff must be trained in the initial screening of patients to determine their travel histories.

A patient who may have been exposed to COVID-19 must be isolated.

“Many winter viruses are coronaviruses, which is why they named this one COVID-19,” said Dr. Oliver Mayorga, L+M’s chief medical officer. “We can’t really distinguish one from another.”

Coronavirus symptoms — fever, cough, sore throat, difficulty breathing — are similar to those associated with the flu. Only blood sample tests conducted by the CDC can confirm whether a person has COVID-19.

“Until we know for sure, a patient would be kept in a safe, separate location,” Mayorga said.

Hartford HealthCare, including Backus Hospital in Norwich, has been monitoring the coronavirus since January and is prepared to respond, according to Ajay Kumar, the chief medical officer. He said Hartford HealthCare facilities have been employing screening protocols to identify patients who recently have traveled to China, Japan and South Korea.

In an email late Wednesday morning, Stephen Mansfield, director of Ledge Light Health District, notified local health directors, municipal officials and school superintendents that he would be sharing the latest information with them.

Mansfield advised that the district’s website, LLHD.org, continually is updated with the latest information from the CDC, and he urged officials to share the link with department heads, staff and the public.

“It is critically important that we collectively provide accurate information, from a reputable source, to the public,” Mansfield wrote.

Also Wednesday, the Connecticut Emergency Management Association appealed to the governor to take immediate action regarding what CEMA believes is an extreme shortage of personal protective equipment.

In a letter, CEMA’s president, Old Saybrook police Chief Michael Spera, called on the governor to request an allotment of personal protective equipment, including gloves, simple face masks, N95 particulate filtering masks, gowns, Tyvek suits and Biocell Ambulance Protection Systems from the federal government.

CEMA is a professional association that represents the state’s emergency preparedness community.

Southeastern Connecticut’s casinos, visited daily by tens of thousands of people, said they were taking proactive steps in the face of the coronavirus threat.

“In partnership with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation’s health teams and governmental partners, we are closely monitoring the latest updates and following guidance from the CDC, state officials and national experts,” said Dr. Setu Vora, chief medical officer of the Mashantucket Tribe, which owns and operates Foxwoods Resorts Casino. “We are in communication with our teams on everyday preventative actions they can take. We also provide free, on-site flu-shots for all of our team members and dependents every year. We’ve invested in additional resources to expand our cleaning efforts across the property and also offer sanitizer stations throughout the resort to promote hand cleansing for our guests and team members.”

In a statement, Jeff Hamilton, Mohegan Sun’s president and general manager, said the Mohegan Tribal Health Department, along with Mohegan Sun’s executive leadership team, “is continuously monitoring the public health response to this emerging issue,” and working directly with the state DPH and the CDC.

“Our daily cleaning standards are stringent and we believe far surpass typical hotel and airport standards,” Hamilton said. “In addition to these standards, Mohegan Sun also offers regular preventative precautions including hand sanitizers, disinfecting wipes and other anti-bacterial products that are easily accessible across the property.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

Help stop the spread

According to the state Department of Health's website, person-to-person spread of the virus is thought to occur mainly via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It recommends these everyday preventative actions to help stop the spread of germs:

• Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

• Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

• Stay home when you are sick.

• Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.

• Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.

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