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Post-holiday COVID-19 cases spike in southeastern Connecticut

Norwich public schools will remain in hybrid model next week, while Norwich Free Academy remains in remote learning amid a post-holiday spike in COVID-19 rates in Norwich and some surrounding towns.

Both the Uncas Health District and Ledge Light Health District reported that the highest COVID-19 rates for their towns since March occurred at the end of December.

During the two-week period from Dec. 20 to Jan. 1, Norwich had a COVID-19 case rate of 82.3 cases per 100,000 population and a positivity rate of 11.5%, according to figures released by the Uncas Health District. The city’s COVID-19 positivity rate had been 10% for the previous two-week period.

The 11-town Uncas Health District had 978 cases the week from Dec. 26 through Jan. 2, topped by 451 in Norwich, 158 in Montville and 129 in Griswold. Positivity rates varied greatly in the Uncas Health District’s other 10 towns, from the low of 3.5% in Salem to 13.3% in Bozrah.

Norwich city leaders said Friday that health care workers and first responders, including police and firefighters, have started to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. Police Chief Patrick Daley said the rollout of vaccines was going smoothly in his department, with no major side effects.

Citing current COVID-19 numbers “at the highest levels they’ve been since the pandemic began in March” in Norwich and several of the other seven partner school districts, NFA Head of School Brian Kelly announced Friday that NFA will remain in the fully remote learning model for now, and the plan is to have students return to campus Jan. 25. Students previously were expected to return on Monday.

“I understand this decision may disappoint some of you, and I realize it can provide additional challenges,” Kelly wrote in a message to students and staff, “but in light of what is happening in our community, it is necessary to provide the safest environment for our students, faculty and staff.”

Norwich Public Schools Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said Friday that Norwich schools will remain in the hybrid learning model. She said there remains little evidence of in-school transmission of COVID-19, with only two of the district’s 186 total cases suspected of involving in-school transmission of the virus. About 40% of Norwich students have opted for fully remote learning, reducing numbers even further in the hybrid model, Stringfellow said.

The week of Jan. 18 will be truncated, with no school that Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and no school Tuesday for staff professional development.

Preschool students will continue to attend in person four days a week at the Bishop Early Learning Center and five days at the Case Street Early Learning Center. Invited special education students and English Language Learners also are attending four days in person.

Stringfellow hopes the Norwich COVID-19 numbers will start to drop after the post-holiday surge. She said all school nurses have been vaccinated as part of the 1a priority group, and a poll of Norwich teachers showed about 80% are willing to get the vaccine when the state rolls out Phase 1b.

“I feel like this is a turning point,” Stringfellow said.

The Ledge Light Health District reported Friday that it is seeing a significant increase in cases in the nine southern New London County towns it covers. It attributed the latest spike, in part, to infections associated with holiday gatherings.

From Dec. 27 to Jan. 2, cases in the district, including those detected in congregate settings such as nursing homes and prisons, totaled 712 — the most in any week since the pandemic began in March and 45.9% more than the previous week’s 488 cases.

The previous weekly high in the district was the 562 cases counted Dec. 6-12, likely reflecting transmissions that occurred over the Thanksgiving holiday.

In the week that ended Aug. 8, there were five cases, the fewest of any week during the pandemic.

Ledge Light also reported the number of COVID-19 cases in community settings, excluding residents of nursing homes, assisted living facilities and prisons, during the two-week period from Dec. 20 to Jan. 2. A total of 1,162 cases were detected in the nine towns, ranging from a low of 12 in Lyme to a high of 326 in New London. Nearly 19,000 COVID-19 test results were counted in the district, with positivity rates ranging from a low of 4.1% in Lyme to a high of 8.0% in Ledyard and New London.

During the pandemic, the district has recorded 193 deaths associated with COVID-19. Town-by-town totals are: Groton, 61; Waterford, 54; East Lyme, 40; New London, 14; Stonington, 10; Ledyard, 9; North Stonington, 3; Old Lyme, 2; and Lyme, 0.

On Friday, L+M said it was treating 44 COVID-19 patients, while Westerly Hospital had five.

c.bessette@theday.com

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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