via Zoom
Zeke Emanuel and Scott Gottlieb join Lamont’s daily briefing (via Zoom)

HARTFORD, CT — Hours before the first phase of Connecticut’s reopening, the state conducted more than 7,800 tests and less than 5% came back positive.

A low positive rate is an indication that there is enough testing to catch nearly all infections in the population and prevent the spread of the virus, according to epidemiologists.

Gov. Ned Lamont said that was the lowest percentage in months.

Zeke Emanuel, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the percentage positivity depends upon the community and there’s been a steady drop in the positivity as testing has increased.

He said he thinks the cap is 3% and by June 1 Connecticut will probably be below that.

Over the past seven days, Connecticut has conducted more than 50,000 tests, according to Lamont.

“You’re not a state that’s at 10% positivity so it’s a very different circumstance,” Emanuel said.

Scott Gottlieb, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Connecticut resident and the former head of the Food and Drug Administration, said if you look at the various proposals for what the testing capacity should be, Connecticut meets the threshold to reopen.

“Connecticut’s right about there,” Gottlieb said. “And it’s going to ramp quickly and you’re going to continue to build it.”

He said there’s no “magic formula” to this. Gottlieb said the state has the capacity to do the testing and new testing is entering the marketplace to help speed up the results and capacity.

The state’s highest-risk population is in nursing homes, and while the state has made an effort to make sure to test every nursing home resident, the guidance for testing nursing home workers has been less clear.

Josh Geballe, Lamont’s chief operating officer, said Monday that they are hoping to test nursing home staff “on a more repetitive basis.”

“We are a little frustrated by how long it’s taking to get the staff testing ramped up,” Geballe said Monday. “There are some union-related issues that need to be resolved with the nursing home operators. We’re doing everything we can to try to support that and push that along.”

What are the union-related issues?

“They have questions about where they’ll be tested, should they be compensated for the time it takes to be tested. There are different unions involved. They have different questions,” Geballe said.

Rob Baril, president of SEIU 1199 representing about 30% of the nursing home workers in Connecticut, said it’s unfair to say workers are responsible for any delays in testing.

“To say that union workers are responsible for any delays in the testing of Connecticut’s nursing home caregivers is to blame the victim. As of today, we have confirmed that 11 members of our union have paid the ultimate price,” Baril said. “Some of our members’ mothers and sisters and brothers have also lost their lives after contracting the virus in households with relatives who happen to be 1199 healthcare workers. No one better appreciates the need to understand, test, contain, and treat the COVID-19 pandemic, which has wrought so much pain, suffering, and death to the state of Connecticut.”

Baril said they wrote Lamont on March 17 and asked him to start testing nursing home workers. He said in Rhode Island their union has partnered with the state to support testing of nursing residents and staff.

Other nursing homes without unionized workers have only received enough supplies to test their residents.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued guidance on Monday that called for nursing home workers to be tested on a weekly basis.

The federal government recommended that “all nursing home staff (including volunteers and vendors who are in the facility on a weekly basis) to receive a single baseline COVID-19 test, with re-testing of all staff continuing every week (note: State and local leaders may adjust the requirement for weekly testing of staff based on data about the circulation of the virus in their community).”

On Tuesday, Geballe said he was thrilled to see the new federal guidance that’s in line with Connecticut’s testing goals.

“I think that will help create more momentum for us,” Geballe said.

He said the goal is to test every worker, every week. To start, it will likely be every other week as the state escalates its testing capacity.

However, he said testing capacity won’t be a problem. He said the limitation will be setting up a system to get into the nursing homes and do the screenings on a regular basis.

“We’ll have the capacity when we need it,” he added.

As far as reopening is concerned, Lamont said there’s nothing that is “risk free,” but he feels good about his decision to begin to reopen the economy starting with outdoor dining, museums, zoos, and offices.

“I think we can proceed with those businesses which are least likely to be dangerous,” Lamont said.

On Monday, Lamont pushed back the reopening of hair salons and barber shops until June 1.