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Norwich schools revert to remote learning, postpone sports amid COVID-19 outbreak

Norwich — Norwich Public Schools and Norwich Free Academy will revert to all-remote learning starting Friday, high school sports will be canceled for two weeks, nine testing sites will be open this weekend, free mask giveaways are planned and area clergy will press the urgency of the city's surge in COVID-19 cases to their congregations.

Several city, school, local and state health officials and medical leaders from Backus Hospital gathered for a news conference outside City Hall on Thursday evening to discuss the community spread of the disease in Norwich, which now has a positivity test rate of 6.7% — three times the state average, which also has seen a recent uptick.

The Backus drive-thru mobile testing site is showing a 9% to 10% positive rate, with clientele coming from the greater Norwich region and many of those seeking a test showing symptoms like those caused by COVID-19.

“The bottom line, it’s our responsibility as a city to address this,” Mayor Peter Nystrom said with emphasis at the start of the news conference, “and that applies to every single resident. I’m asking every resident to take this as serious as we are here today. We own this. These are our families, our neighbors, our community, and we can’t allow this to happen. This is coming at one of the worst times, because it’s getting colder, and people are going to close up their homes, shut their windows and we know that that’s the beginning of flu season as well. We really need to get a handle on this and to help push the numbers down.”

Nystrom said Gov. Ned Lamont has pledged to provide the city with assistance to conduct detailed contact tracing of those who have tested positive and to provide additional testing capacity.

Dr. Lynn Sosa, deputy state epidemiologist at the state Department of Public Health, said the state overall has seen an uptick in cases in the past several weeks, but the Norwich outbreak is much higher. Uncas Health District Director Patrick McCormack stressed the need to continue social distancing, hand washing and mask-wearing. He also stressed that limits on the size of social gatherings are still in place and he urged people to get tested.

In partnership with the state and local health agencies and Backus Hospital, Norwich will have nine free testing sites this weekend at local health facilities and schools, including Three Rivers Community College. The list and schedules are posted on the city's website, norwichct.org, on the Hartford Healthcare website, hartfordhealthcare.org, and Uncas Health District website, uncashd.org.

Backus has conducted nearly 30,000 COVID-19 tests since the pandemic hit, said Donna Handley, president of Backus and Windham hospitals. In the past two weeks, wait times for testing have doubled, and Backus soon will move its mobile testing site from the hospital grounds to the Thomas J. Dodd Stadium for more room, and the hospital has acquired an additional 2,000 testing kits. Until the move, however, Backus has expanded testing hours at the hospital site from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week.

Dr. William Horgan, director of quality and safety at Backus, said Backus is seeing hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients at rates similar to or higher than when the pandemic first hit. Backus reached a peak over the weekend of 12 positive cases and seven patients under investigation for possible COVID-19. Handley said new cases are coming in as others are being discharged.

Horgan stressed the basic prevention methods of mask-wearing, social distancing and hand washing as the "key to keeping us safe."

“I think one of the reasons we’ve seen a little bit of an increase in the eastern part of the state is because during the initial phase of the pandemic, we weren’t struck as hard as other parts of the state,” Horgan said. “And so, now that we’ve had a long period of time with a low number of positives, I think people have kind of lost the fear of the virus. And sadly, we are starting to see more patients admitted. We are still seeing people die within the state of Connecticut due to COVID-19.”

Norwich Public Schools and NFA have been using the hybrid learning model since the start of school. But starting Friday, both will revert to fully remote learning, including the regional adult education program, through at least Oct. 16. NFA sports are postponed through Oct. 19.

NFA has had two students test positive, one of whom already was in optional all-remote learning, NFA Head of School Brian Kelly said. The Samuel Huntington and John B. Stanton elementary schools and the Bishop Early Learning Center have had either students or staff test positive. In all cases, the schools did contact tracing and quarantining of those who had come in direct contact with the infected people.

School officials stressed that the schools do not appear to be the source of community transmission of COVID-19 in the recent spike.

State and local health officials have not determined a source of the outbreak but said the cases are dispersed within the community rather than in a concentrated area or age group.

“On Oct. 19, if the health metrics improve, then we plan to return to hybrid,” Norwich schools Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said. “The transmission that we know of is not occurring within the schools. It is community spread. But we know that public schools can be an avenue for transmission, and so we want to be as proactive and safe as possible.”

Norwich City Manager John Salomone said the city has been “pretty conservative to begin with,” keeping city offices closed except by appointment, and conducting meetings by remote access. The city denied some popular sports leagues from using city facilities, including for flag football, and is reviewing requests on a case-by-case basis. City public housing has limited visitation and activities and has mandated masks. Salomone said city officials will review the protocols at public housing complexes in coming days and decide whether more strict protocols should be enacted.

The Norwich Area Clergy Association met Thursday night to discuss plans to address their congregations this weekend on the COVID-19 increase in the city. The Rev. Gregory Perry, pastor of the Greeneville Congregational Church, attended Thursday’s news conference and asked health officials to provide “readymade packets of information” that can be emailed to constituents and for printed materials that can be handed out to people.

McCormack said Norwich Public Schools, Norwich Human Services and United Community and Family Services will help provide materials in multiple languages to reach Norwich’s large and diverse immigrant population.

Swaranjit Singh Khalsa, a Norwich Board of Education member and representative of the Sikh community of Connecticut, printed color signs in 10 languages — Punjabi, Spanish, Chinese, Hebrew, Irish, English, Arabic, French, Russian and Albanian — and will offer them free to any community organization and will post them on social media. To request a sign, contact Khalsa at swaranusa@gmail.com.

Khalsa’s two Norwich businesses will distribute free masks this weekend. Masks will be available at the Royal Punjabi Restaurant, 198 Main St., from noon to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at Norwichtown Shell, 168 W. Town St., from 6 a.m. to midnight Friday through Sunday.

Looking ahead to the Nov. 3 election, Mayor Nystrom said the city already is seeing a dramatic increase in requests for absentee ballots, and he is encouraging residents to consider voting by absentee ballot.

As for Halloween, he said he will recommend the traditional parties and events hosted by local fire departments be canceled or altered significantly.

“My recommendation was to have the kids stay home and stay safe,” Nystrom said. “I don’t know if that will be accepted by any family. ... In all seriousness a bag of candy is not worth somebody’s health, it just isn’t. I hate to be the Debbie Downer here, but there’ll be another Halloween next year, and that’s what we want everyone to reach.”

c.bessette@theday.com

Physical therapist Pierre Rougny directs traffic Sept. 18, 2020, as nurses and technicians at the drive-up COVID-19 testing facility at Backus Hospital administer tests to patients in Norwich.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Physical therapist Pierre Rougny directs traffic Sept. 18, 2020, as nurses and technicians at the drive-up COVID-19 testing facility at Backus Hospital administer tests to patients in Norwich. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Where to get tested

Norwich sites offering COVID-19 tests, which are free and do not require health insurance or a physician’s order.

Friday, Oct. 2

Edward and Mary Lord Family Health Center, 47 Town St., drive-thru, 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Backus Hospital, 326 Washington St., drive-thru, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

 

Saturday, Oct. 3

Kelly STEAM Magnet Middle School, 25 Mahan Drive, drive-thru, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Backus Hospital, 326 Washington St., drive-thru, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Three Rivers Community College, 574 New London Turnpike, 9 a.m. to noon.

Uncas School, 290 Elizabeth St. Ext., walk-up, 9 a.m. to noon.

 

Sunday, Oct. 4

Norwich Adult Education, 191 Hickory St., drive-thru, noon to 5 p.m.

William W. Backus Hospital 326 Washington St., drive-thru, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Three Rivers Community College, 574 New London Turnpike, 9 a.m. to noon.

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