A New York woman who works at Danbury and Norwalk hospitals is the first confirmed case of the coronavirus to affect Connecticut and may have exposed workers and a “limited number” of patients at both facilities to the virus, officials said Friday night.
The woman remains under self-quarantine at her Westchester County home. Workers she might have come into contact with have been furloughed for at least 14 days while hospital administrators track down anyone she might have come into contact with in recent days.
Officials believe the woman was infected in New York and has stayed in New York since she was notified of her possible exposure on Wednesday. No Connecticut resident has tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, as of late Friday.
“It was somewhat inevitable that there was going to be a positive COVID-19 case in our state and the first one happened to be an employee who works at our hospitals and is a resident of the state of New York, where we believe the person was infected,” said Kerry Eaton, chief operating officer of the Nuvance Health group, which includes both hospitals. “We are really working very hard back at the hospital. We have teams at Norwalk Hospital and Danbury Hospital currently working to make sure we identify any and all persons who need to be notified of their potential exposure to this particular person.”
Gov. Ned Lamont and Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz joined Eaton, Nuvance doctors and a litany of local legislators and public health officials to urge Connecticut residents to remain calm amidst the news of the positive case and stay vigilant about good hand washing practices.
“This is not unexpected and we’ve been well-prepared for this,” Lamont said.
Gov. Lamont and top state health officials have been anticipating a coronavirus case any day as the illness spreads through eastern New York and cases are confirmed in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Jersey.
So far, 14 people have died across the country, according to a count by Johns Hopkins University. There are more than 100,000 cases worldwide, with nearly 3,500 deaths. An estimated 56,000 people have recovered from the virus, according to Johns Hopkins.
Connecticut has tested 42 people for the virus and all have come back negative. Another 11 tests are in the queue and the state expects to receive an additional testing kit, which includes 600 tests, on Monday or Wednesday, State Commissioner of Public Health Renee Coleman-Mitchell said.
New York has more than 40 coronavirus cases, with many of them concentrated in New Rochelle, which is about 50 miles from Danbury.
Josh Geballe, chief operating officer for Gov. Lamont, said Thursday that DPH had investigators ready to track the movements of an infected resident.
“There will be a process to find out how that person got the virus and trace back what contacts have they had with other people, kind of follow their trail to find out who else we have to track down and get tested,” he said.
Geballe said the process is simple: “You ask the questions and then follow the leads.”
“It’s basically detective work,” he said. “You interview the patient and their family and people that they’ve worked with and figure out their travel history and if they’ve come from a Level 3 country and if they did what they’ve done since they’ve been home.”
That process is underway at both Danbury and Norwalk hospitals, where the woman worked in “isolated” areas of each facility and with a limited amount of hospital patients, Eaton said. Officials have not released more information about what work the employee did for the hospitals or her age.
“This particular individual worked in an isolated geographic area in our hospitals, which is helpful, so it’s a limited number of individuals,” Eaton said.
The woman was notified Wednesday by New York health officials of her possible exposure through another New York person and she immediately self-quarantined at home and was removed from her work at the hospitals while she was tested. The positive result came back late Friday, setting off a series of protocols at the hospital and state levels, prompting the announcement by the governor and hospital at Danbury City Hall on Friday evening.
On Friday morning, Lamont and the state Department of Public Health said they will be significantly expand testing for COVID-19 in coming days. They said the outbreak in Connecticut will be similar to “a really bad flu season.”
Coleman-Mitchell told state legislators Friday morning the emphasis has now turned to limiting the spread of the virus instead of trying to quarantine people who have been exposed, she said.
#Coronvirus testing update: The @CTDPH laboratory has now completed 42 tests on state residents for #coronavirus. So far, all came back negative. There are no confirmed cases among Connecticut residents. We will continue to update.
— Governor Ned Lamont (@GovNedLamont) March 7, 2020
“The overall focus has moved to community mitigation. Our focus is preparation,” she said. “The focus is really on trying to slow the spread of the virus so that our health care system does not get overwhelmed.”
“Our overall public health risk for Connecticut residents still remains low for COVID-19,” she said. “Our strategy is to do everything we can to slow the spread of the virus.”
Officials hope the state can mitigate the spread enough to ease the burden on hospitals and health-care providers and more effectively treat infected patients.
Connecticut has prioritized testing for residents who have severe COVID-19 symptoms and those who have shown symptoms after returning from countries with outbreaks (China, Italy, South Korea, Iran). Patients with mild symptoms have been told to self-isolate for 14 days.
Dr. Anand Sekaran, the division chief of hospital medicine for Connecticut Children’s, said at the Hartford Public Library press conference that elderly people are most vulnerable to COVD-19. Children are expected to be less than 3% of those infected, according to available data, he said.
Matthew Cartter, the state epidemiologist and director of infectious diseases for the Department of Public Health, said COVID-19 is likely to impact Connecticut into the summer.
“It will feel a lot like a really bad flu season,” he said. “And it will last for 3-4 months in any one place. We don’t really know for sure.”
Cartter cautioned against panic while acknowledging the response “will not be an easy road to travel.” He said the state could eventually be forced to cancel public events and other large gatherings, but that “we’re not there yet.”
Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin urged people to “remember the basics” at an afternoon press conference at the Hartford Public Library. He encouraged regularly washing one’s hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, avoiding shaking hands and not touching one’s face.
Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton echoed those sentiments at the announcement Friday night and urged residents across Connecticut to stay level-headed and use common sense to help officials mitigate the spread of the virus.
“If there’s a message for the community, it’s this: We got this,” Boughton said. “It’s going to be unnerving, it’s disruptive, it’s scary, but at the end of the day, we’re going to be OK if we work together, we follow the protocols that are in place and we make sure we communicate across all lines, including state borders.”
The state will soon expand testing for the virus, with the private lab Quest Diagnostics assisting. In a separate announcement, Cigna said it would waive all costs of coronavirus testing for its customers.
On Thursday, Lamont sent a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requesting more testing kits. The state currently has one kit, which can test about 500 people. Many states have been unable to rapidly expand testing for the virus because of a shortage of test kits.
Many of the state’s larger hospitals are currently undergoing an FDA process to do their own COVID-19 testing on-site, Geballe said.
“We are days away from having dramatically increased capacity to process tests,” he said.
After expanding testing capabilities, the state’s focus will shift toward increasing its ability to collect specimens from potential patients, Geballe said. That could involve setting up fever clinics, which some other countries have used to triage people with COVID-19 symptoms and keep them away from hospital emergency departments.
“It’s a substantial undertaking but we want to prepare for all scenarios,” he said.
Dr. Ajay Kumar, the chief clinical officer for Hartford Healthcare, said that the system’s hospitals began planning triage centers for their emergency rooms weeks ago.
“A suspected person of interest or someone who actually has COVID-19, they show up, we’ll take them to a separate area,” Kumar said at the Hartford Public Library press conference.
He added that if it becomes necessary to expand the hospitals’ triage capabilities, the health care system is considering “trailers or tents and other areas, as long as it is DPH-approved.”
The state is also in daily contact with nursing homes, which in Washington State became the epicenter of the state’s COVID-19 oubtreak, Geballe said.
He added that Connecticut is “working with our insurance companies so that cost is not a barrier to testing.”
The state’s 211 telephone hotline will be providing information about coronavirus and treatment, Coleman-Mitchell said. The hotline is designed for individuals without symptoms. Those with symptoms are encouraged to seek medical treatment.
Hartford Healthcare has also established a 24-hour hotline where clinicians can answer questions about COVID-19. That number is 860-972-8100.