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Norwich to distribute COVID-19 test kits, seek more state test sites and relief for schools

Norwich — The ever-shifting COVID-19 picture and renewed sense of urgency in response to critical school staffing issues and demand for testing dominated a teleconference Friday morning among city leaders, legislators and local health and education agencies.

The recent COVID-19 surge also prompted Mayor Peter Nystrom to return to the early pandemic schedule of hosting the teleconference weekly rather than twice a month.

The city's COVID-19 case rate jumped from 64.9 per 100,000 population and 10% test positivity rate in the two-week period from Dec. 5 to 15 to 151.5 cases per 100,000 population and a positive test rate of 20.9% in the period from Dec. 19 to Jan. 1, Uncas Health District Director Patrick McCormack told call participants.

The rising cases have strained school systems throughout the region. Norwich Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow and Norwich Free Academy Head of School Brian Kelly said every day this week that they have been on the verge of closing schools due to a lack of staffing or critical shortage of bus drivers.

But a state order that says fully remote learning days would not count toward the mandated minimum 180 learning days leaves school administrators with few options. Stringfellow said if Norwich schools must close — as Stonington did Monday and Tuesday — and make up the days in June, “I will run out of June.” Friday was the district’s first snow day of the season.

Kelly added that shifting to remote learning while still needing to make up those days at the end of the year presents contractual issues, as teachers' contracts have maximum number of teaching days. Kelly said he has asked teachers to work “straight through” the day, skipping sessions reserved for class preparation, to help cover for absent teachers.

“That’s simply not sustainable,” Kelly said.

Kelly and Stringfellow are turning to the state legislature for help. Both have spoken with state Sen. Cathy Osten to ask for relief in the 180-day minimum school year. “Even just five days” would be a help, Stringfellow said.

Osten said she has brought up the issue with Gov. Ned Lamont’s staff to no avail. She said the legislature will have to take up the 180-day minimum during the upcoming short legislative session, which begins Feb. 9.

Teleconference participants also addressed the need to expand COVID-19 testing, as the state-sponsored, drive-thru test site at the Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium in Norwich is inaccessible to many residents without vehicles or who cannot wait the sometimes three to four hours in line.

Jennifer Granger, president and CEO of United Community and Family Services, a health care provider for low-income residents throughout the region, said she has discussed with state Department of Public Health officials the need to expand testing sites in Norwich. She said state officials prefer an indoor location.

City leaders met following the teleconference and decided to recommend three possible sites with better access: the Norwich Transportation Center on Falls Avenue, St. Mary’s Church on Central Avenue in Greeneville and St. Vincent de Paul Place soup kitchen at 120 Cliff St.

City Manager John Salomone said the transportation center would best be used as a testing site for Southeast Area Transit bus riders or walk-up people only. He said using the site as a drive-thru would cause traffic congestion at the busy Falls Avenue and West Main Street intersection. McCormack suggested the transportation center could be set up as an appointment-only site.

Mayor Peter Nystrom said he is hoping all three city sites can be used to expand testing access.

Norwich also received an additional 2,600 at-home rapid COVID-19 test kits and will distribute about 1,400 of them to the public in a drive-thru event beginning at noon Saturday in front of Kelly Middle School on Mahan Drive. Recipients must bring proof of Norwich residency and will be limited to two test kits, each containing two COVID-19 tests, per household. A limited number of adult N95 masks also will be distributed.

The distribution setup will require a strict traffic pattern, as Mahan Drive will be converted to one-way traffic. Recipients must approach Mahan Drive through Mohegan Park along Wilderness Road to John Edward Drive, turning right onto Mahan Drive for a residency check before proceeding to the distribution and then exiting toward Ox Hill Road.

City officials reserved 1,200 test kits and some N95 masks to be delivered directly to residents in public housing, senior housing facilities and to agencies that serve people with limited mobility, fire Chief and Emergency Management Director Tracy Montoya said.


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