A state deal to purchase millions of at-home COVID-19 tests fell apart Thursday, frustrating municipalities which scrambled to distribute them and leaving Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration on the defensive.
As the state COVID infection rate soared over 20%, the governor appeared at a televised press conference outside East Hartford’s public safety complex. Lamont, who announced Monday his administration had purchased 3 million rapid COVID tests, said the shipment had been secured by some other party.
“It’s not like Federal Express, where they say it’s going to be delivered at 10 o’clock the next morning, if it’s not there you get your money back. It’s more like surge pricing if you’ve ever done Uber and Lyft, where you think you’ve got a deal and at the last moment the truck goes someplace else,” Lamont said.
The governor declined to say who ended up with the tests that were thought to be bound for Connecticut, which company the state believed it had an agreement with or whether the state would continue to work with that organization. He said there was competition for the order.
“There were a lot of brokers in this game… There were a lot of people putting money on the table and trucks were turning around,” he said.
The governor said his administration would continue to work on securing additional tests and called the COVID metrics published two hours earlier “eye-popping.” At 20.33%, the state’s infection rate exceeded 20% for the first time and over the last week another 83 Connecticut residents died with the virus. Hospitalized patients with COVID continued to swell to 1,151.
The governor and his advisors faced a barrage of questions outside the East Hartford complex about the agreement to purchase the tests. Lamont told reporters the state had what he considered to be an “air-tight” agreement with an agreed upon price and purchase order.
“I think airtight does not mean what it does under normal commercial circumstances, under more normal times,” he said.
Members of the administration said the deal for the at-home test kits had been “misrepresented” to Connecticut officials.
“We absolutely had a contract,” Public Health Commissioner Manisha Juthani said. “We issued a purchase order off of the contract. We were given pictures and confirmation that the product was being loaded and on the way. Those were misrepresented to us. So we did everything by the book, the way you would expect the state to proceed with a purchase of this magnitude.”
Officials had hoped that the at-home tests would ease strain on the state’s testing facilities, which have been under pressure as people have gathered for holiday events amidst spread of the more-infectious omicron variant. Residents have reported hours-long waits at testing facilities and in some cases facilities running out of test kits before closing time.
The administration held a separate press conference Monday to announce the expected tests and plans to begin distributing the first 1 million tests this week in coordination with municipalities and the Connecticut National Guard. Initially, that effort was expected to begin Thursday and municipalities around the state made preparations over the holiday week to begin distribution.
On Wednesday the administration announced a shipment would be delayed. On Thursday, municipal leaders began cancelling planned distribution events.
“As recent media reports have indicated, the state did not have testing supplies in hand when the rollout was announced, and unfortunately due to shipping delays we still have not received word if or when the supplies will arrive,” Middletown Mayor Ben Florsheim’s office announced in a press release cancelling an event planned for Friday.
House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said Thursday the administration had announced the kits prematurely given the national demand for at-home tests.
“There’s enough panic and concern out there with the general public. It’s not helpful that a lot of municipal resources were pulled away right before the holiday trying to set up distribution centers when these kits weren’t even in hand,” Candelora said.
Asked if he would have done anything differently, the governor said he might have taken a more cautious approach to the announcement.
“I think we got a little ahead of ourselves, to tell you the truth,” Lamont said. “We all thought the tests were in the plane. We thought ‘Here they come.’ We wanted to give our municipalities a little bit of time for planning. I think in hindsight we probably should have said ‘Off the record, you may be able to plan for this but we can’t announce it yet because I’ve been through this movie before. If you don’t see it, it’s not here yet.’”