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State official says Norwich outbreak contained, no COVID-19 alert planned

A COVID-19 outbreak that may have spread from a Norwich nursing home to Backus Hospital in Norwich appears to be contained, a top official in Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration said Thursday.

Josh Geballe, the state’s chief operating officer, said the state has no intention of issuing a COVID-19 alert for Norwich, a step the Department of Health took last month after an outbreak in Danbury, where at least 178 cases of the coronavirus disease were recorded from Aug. 2 to Aug. 20.

“At this point ... it seems to be contained to this particular nursing home and perhaps some bleed-over into the local hospital as well,” Geballe said during a virtual news briefing. “It doesn’t appear there’s community spread.”

Reports of the Norwich outbreak — more than two-dozen cases and three fatalities have occurred at Three Rivers Healthcare nursing home and as many as 11 cases have been detected among Backus staff — prompted state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, to ask Lamont to issue an executive order requiring health care workers to notify their employer if they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or if they have been exposed to people with the disease or who are awaiting test results.

A DPH investigation found a nurse went to work at the nursing home knowing she may have been infected with COVID-19 and then worked with elderly, immune-compromised patients without wearing a mask. Twenty-one of the home’s patients and five staff became infected. Three patients died.

“... It is imperative that our essential (health care) workers, especially those working in close proximity to, and providing critical care for, our elderly and immune-compromised individuals, be mandated to wear masks, report suspected COVID symptoms, quarantine, and if needed, seek medical treatment themselves,” Osten wrote in a letter to the governor.

State Reps. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, and Emmett Riley, D-Norwich, also signed the letter.

Lamont said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the DPH already have established well-known COVID-19 protocols.

“If you’re sick, stay home, do not show up for work. If you have a pre-existing condition, stay home, do not show up for work. Wear the mask,” he said. “A lot of protocols were not followed (at Three Rivers), but that doesn’t mean those protocols weren’t in place and those rules weren’t in place already.”

Geballe said the DPH has issued guidance instructing all health care facilities to screen employees for illness.

“At this point, it’s common sense for everyone in our state, our country and our world that if you have symptoms, don’t go to work,” he said. “You need to stay home and you need to protect your community. That did not happen here.”

He said the governor’s office would take a look at Osten’s request to see if additional measures could be taken to clarify the guidance.

'Can happen anywhere'

The COVID-19 outbreak at Backus is believed to have originated with a Three Rivers patient who was treated at the hospital, Dr. Ajay Kumar, Hartford HealthCare’s chief medical officer, confirmed in an interview Thursday. He said four Three Rivers patients were treated at the hospital and that one who initially tested negative for COVID-19 subsequently tested positive.

It’s believed a member of the hospital staff who failed to properly wear a mask at all times contracted the disease from the Three Rivers patient, Kumar said, and then infected a colleague or colleagues.

The hospital had 68 staff members tested and found nine who were positive, Kumar said. All of the infected staff members, including one nurse, worked on the same unit where the Three Rivers patient was treated. That nurse, Shanon Pereira, said in an interview Wednesday that her mother, who cares for Pereira's 2-year-old son, has tested positive for COVID-19 since Pereira contracted the disease. Pereira said she was awaiting the results of her son's test.

Another Backus nurse, who asked not to be publicly identified, said Thursday two more staff members had tested positive in addition to the first nine.

“What happened at Backus can happen anywhere,” said Kumar, who stressed that people must continue to practice COVID-19 protocols, including wearing masks, distancing and washing hands.

He stressed that Backus and all other Hartford HealthCare facilities have adequate supplies of masks and other personal protective equipment, or PPE, and that staff “can change their supply every hour if they need to.”

Some Backus nurses have said PPE is in short supply.

Three Rivers management commented for the first time Thursday on the outbreak at the nursing home.

“Since the occurrence of positive COVID-19 cases reported in our home, we have been working with the state Department Public Health and its epidemiologists as we monitor the health of our residents and staff,” Scott Ziskin, president and chief executive officer of JACC Health Center, which operates Three Rivers, said in a statement. “This week, we submitted a comprehensive plan for corrective action to DPH, and we continue to work with DPH on a daily basis to implement the plan as the situation evolves. We offer our deepest sympathies to the families and loved ones of the three residents who succumbed to the virus, and remain ever-vigilant in keeping everyone in the Three Rivers family safe.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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