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East Lyme, Montville, Norwich, New London and Preston among towns under 'red' alert

As southeastern Connecticut faces an uptick in COVID-19 cases, with many towns under “red” or “orange” alert, officials are urging residents to wear masks, social distance, clean and sanitize their hands and avoid large gatherings.

The state Department of Public Health issued public health alerts for East Lyme, Montville, New London, Norwich, Preston, Griswold, Sprague, Canterbury, Windham, Danbury and Hartford. Those municipalities are under a red alert, defined as having a rate of more than 15 cases per 100,000 people.

Locally Groton, Ledyard, Salem and Waterford fall under the next level, orange, which the state defines as a rate of 10 to 14 cases per 100,000 population, while Stonington is on the yellow level, defined as a rate of 5 to 9 cases per 100,000 population.

Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London is seeing a slight uptick in patients, with 13 inpatients on Friday, said Christine Cooke, marketing and communications coordinator for L+M Healthcare. “We remain prepared to handle a surge,” she said.

Backus Hospital in Norwich reported seven patients hospitalized with COVID-19 on Friday, a decline from the 22 it had Oct. 5-6. Windham Hospital, however, was experiencing its highest volume of positive patients, with 5 people hospitalized, said Emily Perkins, communications specialist for Backus and Windham Hospitals.

Ledge Light Health District Director Stephen Mansfield said the region is seeing spikes in cases associated with social interaction, rather than institutional settings or businesses, though there are some cases there. He said people are experiencing “COVID fatigue” and are letting their guard down.

He said contact tracers have found the majority of cases are associated with individual behaviors, such as people getting together in groups outside of their family circle. Over the last couple of weeks, the health district also saw an increase in infections associated with sports activities, including cheerleading, gymnastics, hockey, football and the social events that surround those activities.

“I think people have to be very cognizant of the fact that it’s the simple things,” Mansfield said. “It’s the normal day-to-day interactions where we’re seeing the majority of the transmissions.”

He said people should continue to limit the number of people they interact with on a daily basis. People should consider the people they work with as part of the general population and wear a mask when they’re not sitting alone at their desk. If the people don’t all live in one household, they should wear a mask and social distance at family gatherings.

The state recommends people in red alert areas limit trips outside their home, avoid gatherings with people outside their immediate family and postpone indoor activities, as well as outdoor activities that lack proper social distancing and mask-wearing. It also recommends communities cancel public events and “limit public gathering points.” Those in high-risk populations should stay home, and the municipalities have the option to go back to Phase 2 reopening restrictions.

The state also has recommendations for communities under an orange alert, including scaling back events, limiting group sizes and time with people outside the family and postponing indoor activities that lack social distancing and mask-wearing, and high-risk people are urged to stay home. Communities under a yellow alert are urged to move activities outdoors, increase awareness of safety measures and continue to follow mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines, along with additional precautions for high-risk people.

But Uncas Health District Director Patrick McCormack said southeastern Connecticut as a whole is experiencing a surge in cases, so just because someone lives in a town on a lower-level alert does not mean they should be less concerned. He said people should all take the same safety precautions. “It’s really going across age groups and across communities,” he said. “It’s urban, rural and suburban towns.”

In southeastern Connecticut, people may live in one town but shop or go to school in another community, so there is cross over and it is connected to people’s activities, McCormack said. “It doesn’t stop at the border,” he said. “It really is dependent on everybody, no matter where they live, following the guidelines.”

That includes wearing masks and social distancing and limiting large groups, he said. And if people do become sick, it means following the guidelines to isolate and answering the phone for contact tracers.

He also said the region is seeing increased testing. People can visit the websites of Uncas and Ledge Light health districts for testing information, or can call 211.

The state reported that New London County has seen 2,994 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of 4 p.m. Friday, an increase of 160 since data was reported Thursday, and 89 probable cases. Confirmed associated deaths remained flat at 98, while probable deaths increased by one to 32. The number of hospitalizations related to the disease, 23, also remained unchanged.

Local response

Though in the red category, Montville, Norwich, New London, Preston, East Lyme and Griswold are not planning to scale back to Phase 2 restrictions at this time.

“We do not have any contact tracing data that would point to specific sources of the uptick, so I think we can assume that it is a general letting of our collective guard down,” Montville Mayor Ronald K. McDaniel said. “I have always and continue to urge everyone to be vigilant about wearing proper face protection, maintaining sufficient social distancing and being diligent with personal hygiene like proper hand washing."

Town offices have been open to the public for day-to-day business, and people, “with very few exceptions,” have complied with safety protocols, while the hybrid meeting model appears to be working, he said. He said town officials will continue to monitor the situation and adjust as needed in consultation with health officials.

East Lyme, First Selectman Mark Nickerson said, will not revert to Phase 2, given that cases are coming from small gatherings among adults and children, not restaurants or churches.

He encouraged people to remain vigilant. "We’re going to tell people don’t have any gatherings, and we’re going to say no Halloween parties; don’t put your kids together," he said.

Nickerson joined part of a call with the DPH on Friday afternoon, which he said was mostly about how first selectmen and health district workers can issue tickets for those who violate mask and gathering rules.

Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom said city leaders were not happy about the red alert, but the state already had declared a COVID-19 alert for Norwich on Oct. 1. City offices have been closed to the public since March and reinstated restrictions on in-person inspections and consultations Oct. 2.

Nystrom said the red alert might “weaken consumer confidence” in local restaurants and businesses, when local data have shown they are not the source of the recent spike in cases.

“This is a community spread,” he said. “You can’t point to a single thing. It’s not churches. It’s not restaurants. It’s not the casinos. Families have to hunker down and stay within their nuclear families for gatherings. We have to do that.”

Norwich Public Schools and Norwich Free Academy reverted to fully remote learning Oct. 2 for two weeks, and on Wednesday announced that will be extended through next week. Norwich Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow sent letters Friday announcing that two students at the Samuel Huntington School and one student at the Teachers Memorial Global Studies Magnet Middle School had tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 13. She said the Huntington students had last been in school on Oct. 1, and the middle school student on Sept. 25, so there were no in-school exposures.

New London Mayor Michael Passero announced earlier in the week that the city would not move back to Phase 2, saying in a news relase that “the data reveal that there would be no significant value in moving back from Phase 3 to Phase 2."

Preston First Selectwoman Sandra Allyn-Gauthier said the red alert will not change any town precautions at this time. Town offices remain closed, open by appointment only or for outdoor exchanges.

“We continue to evaluate and monitor with Patrick McCormack, director of Uncas Health, and will adjust if need be,” Allyn-Gauthier said. “Also, we have been updating and reminding our community of the status of our cases, phases, safety protocols and other resources since the beginning of this pandemic.”

Preston Superintendent Roy Seitsinger sent a letter to school staff and parents Friday informing them that the state had elevated the town’s COVID-19 status because of an increase of 11 cases in town from Sept. 27 through Oct. 10.

He noted there are no positive cases involving students or staff at the town's schools, so there is no need at this time, based on the most recent data, to transition from a hybrid program to fully virtual learning. He said administrators will continue to monitor cases: "If Preston’s infection rate continues to rise, or if we are directly impacted by a positive case, our situation will change.”

Griswold First Selectman Todd Babbitt said the town's COVID-19 numbers have been increasing over the last few weeks and local officials have been meeting twice per week to monitor and plan with both fire departments, the superintendent of schools and other departments. A drive-thru testing event will be held Sunday at United Community & Family Services in Jewett City.

Orange alert

Officials in orange alert communities also were evaluating the situation.

Groton Town Manager John Burt said it is very concerning to see the increase in infection rates in the region, and especially seeing his town in the orange category. He said he is monitoring the situation very closely and having daily discussions with staff, and the town will make adjustments as needed. “I’m afraid we’re in for a very difficult winter if people don’t stay vigilant,” he said.

Groton City Mayor Keith Hedrick said the municipal building is open three days a week but officials will continue to evaluate the situation based on the number of COVID-19 cases in the community.

He encouraged people to continue following public health guidelines. He said when people are close together at social or family gatherings, whether inside or outside, and they are not wearing masks, they are sharing the same breath, leading to a situation where COVID-19 could spread.

Waterford First Selectman Rob Brule said he is working directly with the superintendent of schools and public health director to minimize the risks of exposures. With Clark Lane and now Waterford High School being closed, Brule said he thought it was necessary to suspend all town sports and co-sponsored programs until Monday.

"We will all be discussing developments over the weekend and are committed to moving forward in a collaborative and consistent manner in order to keep our residents as safe as possible," he said.

Salem First Selectman Kevin Lyden said his town has been cautious. Town Hall remains open by appointment only, and the library is open for curbside pickup. Fields, tennis courts, and trails also are open.

Ledyard Mayor Fred Allyn III said at this time the town is not changing public access to Town Hall, with departments remaining open, but is preprepared to temporarily halt public access if needed, with a secure drop box in front of the building. It retains the ability to operate remotely. “We want to ensure the availability of Town Hall during this busier than ever election season due to absentee balloting, while also protecting our employees and their families,” he said.

He pointed out that the town is still a bedroom community of predominantly single-family homes, commonly containing four or five individuals. “When the highly contagious COVID is brought into a Ledyard home, it virtually assures all occupants get COVID,” he said.

Stonington First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough said the town began scaling up its communications related to COVID-19 three weeks ago and posting videos, such as one focused on available mental health resources. She said the town was considering moving to more in-person meetings but now likely will stay mostly virtual.

Day Staff Writers Claire Bessette, Erica Moser and Greg Smith contributed to this report.

k.drelich@theday.com


To get tested

For testing information, people can visit the websites of Uncas Health District, uncashd.org, and Ledge Light Health District, llhd.org, or can call 211.

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