New London reports first COVID-19 case; state sees slowdown in testing

As the state sees a slowdown in testing due to what the governor said is a shortage of personal protective equipment for health care workers, New London has reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19.

Ledge Light Health District reported the case Thursday, a 51-year-old man who had been transported from a New London residence twice within the last two weeks by a New London Fire Department ambulance — once on March 15 and again late Wednesday night.

Lawrence + Memorial Hospital reported the positive test result to New London emergency dispatch at 4:05 a.m. Thursday morning, Mayor Michael Passero said.

Two different EMTs responded to each of the calls to transport the man, including one firefighter who was not wearing a N95 mask at the time of the March 15 call, fire Chief Thomas Curcio said.

Curcio said the initial call for service did not indicate the patient was exhibiting signs of COVID-19, caused by the new coronavirus. Protocol has since changed and all firefighters are wearing N95 masks and other appropriate personal protective equipment for every call, he said.

The one firefighter from the March 15 call who was not wearing a mask is at home in self-quarantine, Curcio said. He has not displayed any symptoms of the disease and will not be tested unless he does. The temperatures of all firefighters are being monitored.

Passero said the fire department already had reduced the number of personnel responding to medical calls in anticipation of the coronavirus reaching the city. "We were anticipating this. It was just a question of when," he said. "We've instituted social distancing and protocols to ward off any kind of a surge."

Ledge Light did not release the address of the man who tested positive and Passero declined to comment. The health district informed the mayor that it is following appropriate state Department of Public Health protocols "regarding positive cases and potential contacts."

Tests slow amid equipment shortage

Amid the slowdown in testing for the novel coronavirus, the daily increase in the number of Connecticut's confirmed cases slowed, too.

Gov. Ned Lamont reported late Thursday afternoon that there were 1,012 cases, up from 875 the day before. Deaths numbered 21, two more than Wednesday.

"I don't think you can make very much from a one-day sample ... but it is indicative of how these numbers are going to bounce around a little bit, and I don't want you to jump to any conclusions too early," the governor, flanked by U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, told reporters during his daily coronavirus briefing at the State Capitol in Hartford.

As of Thursday, more than 6,500 tests conducted at the State Public Health Laboratory and at hospitals and commercial laboratories had been reported, an increase of about 500 since the previous day. The state lab said it was still testing samples it received Tuesday and that its numbers did not reflect a decrease in its testing. Of the 1,320 patients it's tested, 193 were positive for COVID-19, the coronavirus disease.

Not including the New London case nor a second case in Groton confirmed Wednesday, Thursday's numbers showed 13 New London County residents have tested positive, four more than the previous day. The hometowns of those who have tested positive include Colchester; East Lyme (2); Franklin; Groton; Lisbon (2); Lyme; Montville; Norwich (2); Stonington; and Voluntown.

Nineteen of the state's 21 fatalities have been over the age of 70, and 15 have been older than 80, Lamont said.

The pace of testing has slowed, he said, because of the shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE, worn by nurses and other health care workers and the need to keep nurses in hospitals taking care of patients rather than collecting samples for testing. He said those with severe symptoms will continue to be tested, provided they obtain a doctor's order.

Lamont urged that those over 60 stay at home and rely on family and friends to do their grocery shopping.

"Social distancing is more important than ever," he said. "In gatherings, you should be with no more than five people. Stay apart. That's stricter than I've been."

He said the number of customers insider "bigger" stores should be limited to no more than 50 at any one time. He also called for New Yorkers to avoid traveling to Connecticut, stopping sort of an outright ban on such travel. The New York City area has emerged as an epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.

MetroNorth rail ridership is down 95%, and Connecticut roads are empty, suggesting people are getting the message, the governor said.

Seeking federal assistance

During his briefing, Lamont said he had just gotten off the phone with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence and took issue with the administration's stated desire to "open up the country" early next month.

"He was talking about getting back to work sooner than later," Lamont said, referring to the president.

The governor had announced earlier in the day that he has requested a presidential major disaster declaration for Connecticut as a result of the pandemic's impact. He is seeking public assistance for all eight of the state's counties, including disaster unemployment assistance, crisis counseling, disaster case management and disaster legal services, as well as child care and funeral assistance.

"The global pandemic is continuing to have a major impact on the lives of every person and entity in our state and around the country," Lamont said. "If approved, this disaster declaration request will provide greatly needed assistance to our residents, as well as our local and state governments, so that we can try to bring some relief during this difficult and ongoing challenge."

Blumenthal and Murphy, Connecticut's Democratic senators, praised Lamont's approach to the pandemic, with Blumenthal saying Lamont's been at the forefront of governors who've been "filling the leadership gap the president has failed to fill."

"We cannot have economic recovery without addressing the health emergency," Blumenthal said. "The disease will set the timetable."

The senators had worked until late Wednesday night on a revision of the $2 trillion aid package that won unanimous Senate approval and which provides funding for hospitals, schools, small businesses and the states, and puts money in the hands of the unemployed.

Payments of $1,200 per person will be made within the next three weeks, Blumenthal said. The legislation also increases unemployment benefits by $600 a week and extends them for four additional months.

Murphy said Democrats would continue to press the president to make full use of his power to order the production and direct the distribution of the protective equipment health care workers need to test for COVID-19.

"We've got to put our heads down and plow ahead," he said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

g.smith@theday.com







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