Connecticut’s COVID-19 infection rate continued to climb through the holiday weekend and as of Monday stood at 21.5%, the state’s public health commissioner said during a morning press conference.
At a televised event from Stamford Hospital, Commissioner Manisha Juthani said the three-day number, the highest infection rate posted since the pandemic began, coincided with the continued spread of the more-virulent omicron variant. Juthani said the number of patients hospitalized with the virus in Connecticut had also continued to rise. Over the weekend, an additional 301 COVID patients were hospitalized, bringing the statewide total to 1,452.
While the state’s virus metrics continued to grow more severe, state officials and health care professionals said there was still capacity at Connecticut’s hospitals. They urged residents to continue to observe mitigation strategies like masking, social distancing, and vaccination against the virus. Although more infectious, Juthani said the omicron variant seemed less severe, particularly in vaccinated patients.
“The good news is that if you are vaccinated and particularly if you are boosted, the majority of people are having mild symptoms and some are even asymptomatic,” Juthani said. “Throughout our state, 70-80% of people who are in the hospital are unvaccinated. The unvaccinated have reason to be scared. The people who are vaccinated, we are looking at a better future.”
At the press conference, Stamford Health President Kathleen Silard said about 240 of her hospital’s 305 beds were occupied. During a separate call Monday afternoon, Hartford HealthCare Chief Clinical Officer Ajay Kumar also reported adequate capacity across the health care system.
“At this time, I wouldn’t say we are strained,” Kumar said. He said the situation changed by the day. “We are managing through well and we are making sure our community gets access to the care as and when they’re needed.”
Juthani expressed concerns about the impact of the more infectious strain on the ability of health care systems to keep their operations fully staffed.
“I’m very concerned. I’m very concerned about our hospital staff, I’m concerned about nurses and doctors that have been working on the front lines,” Juthani said.
As of Monday, Silard said that about 140 of Stamford Health’s roughly 3,700 employees were out with COVID. However, she described their illnesses as generally “low-level” and said not all of those workers were direct care employees. Kumar said the number of Hartford HealthCare employees out sick changed daily, but employee illness had not impacted patient services.
With hospitalizations continuing to rise and cases surging, some municipalities have enacted indoor mask mandates. On Monday, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said the city would require masks inside until the end of January.
“We all hope that the Omicron surge will soon peak and that we’ll see case rates fall, but with the current numbers, we’ve got to do whatever we can, even at the margins,” Bronin said in a press release.
Asked whether Connecticut would follow suit, Gov. Ned Lamont said he had no plans to reinstate the requirement statewide.
“I think overwhelmingly the people of Connecticut are doing the right thing,” Lamont said in Stamford. “They’re wearing the mask. I don’t want to put a lot of counter-pressures on and rebellion and people fighting back against it. I encourage everybody: wear the masks while you’re indoors.”
For the time being, state officials and public health experts are looking to other states and countries for clues to how long the omicron variant will fuel a surge in cases here in Connecticut.
Juthani said even higher infection rates seen in New York are likely in Connecticut’s future. Keith Grant, APRN and Hartford HealthCare senior director of infection prevention said residents should expect about five to six weeks of the current surge, based on the experience of other countries where omicron was present earlier.
“We do believe that sometime in early February we should start decreasing at a good rate,” Grant said.
The state has continued to try and increase its testing capacity. After a deal for millions of at-home tests fell through last week, Lamont said his administration had secured over a million in the past few days.
Meanwhile, Sema4, the company which operates more than half the state-sponsored testing sites, is preparing to leave the COVID testing business at the end of January. Dr. Jim Cardon, chief clinical integration officer at Hartford HealthCare, said the health care system was expanding hours and opening new testing sites.
“We are trying to dovetail with what the state is doing as they are considering their plan forward, following when Sema4 lab is going to withdraw,” Cardon said. “Our hope is that with our supplemental testing we are going to be rolling out and with the state and others have, we should be able to cover that.”
Lamont said the state would continue to supply municipalities with at-home rapid tests, particularly for school systems. However, he urged residents to be judicious with the tests.
“We can‘t have everybody rush the gate for the test at the exact same time,” Lamont said. “I just urge a little bit of common sense here. I can’t mandate common sense. But if you are symptomatic, if you’ve got some cold, flu-like symptoms, you probably have COVID and you definitely should stay at home. You definitely should wait until those symptoms subside. And then get yourself that test.”