'I sure hope not': Lamont resists more restrictions as new COVID strain hits CT

Photo of Peter Yankowski
Hundreds of people turned out Thursday morning for COVID-19 tests at Liberation Programs, in Bridgeport, Conn. July 9, 2020. The free community Coronavirus test screenings were administered by the staff of Bridgeport's Southwest Community Health Center.

Hundreds of people turned out Thursday morning for COVID-19 tests at Liberation Programs, in Bridgeport, Conn. July 9, 2020. The free community Coronavirus test screenings were administered by the staff of Bridgeport’s Southwest Community Health Center.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

The first cases of a highly contagious variant of the coronavirus have been detected in Connecticut, according to Gov. Ned Lamont, who said those who test positive now have a “good chance” of having the new strain.

But the governor stopped short of announcing new restrictions on travel or business, while reinforcing the importance of masks and social distancing.

“I sure hope not,” Lamont said, when asked if he would consider new restrictions. “I see what’s going on in Europe, we watch that pretty carefully ... but right now, we’re following hospital capacity. I think we’re in pretty good shape, so I don’t anticipate any changes, but we’ll see if that changes.”

The state recorded 3,304 new COVID cases Thursday, and surpassed a total of 200,000 reported cases since the start of the pandemic. The daily positivity rate dipped to 6.28 percent after a high number of new tests — 52,633 — were reported on Thursday.

There were also 52 fewer people hospitalized with the disease with the statewide total now at 1,087, but there were 57 more COVID-related deaths reported on Thursday.

As of this week, 164 of Connecticut's 169 municipalities are now considered red zones, based on the number of new cases per 100,000 residents over 14 days. Canaan, Colebrook, Kent, Union and Warren are the only communities outside of the red zone.

The two known Connecticut cases of the new variant of the virus, officially known as B.1.1.7, involve people from New Haven County, according to the state Department of Public Health.

The two people are between the ages of 15 and 25 and have recently traveled outside of the state — one to Ireland and the other to New York, the governor’s office said.

Both developed symptoms within days of their return. The two cases are unrelated, based on genetic sequencing of the virus, the governor’s office said.

“As we said last week, given the speed of this new strand of the virus and its identification in several states throughout our country, we presumed it was already in our state and this information (Thursday) morning confirms that fact,” Lamont said in a statement.

He urged people to continue following precautions to halt the spread of the virus, including social distancing and wearing masks.

Both people with the new strain were interviewed by contact tracers after they tested positive and their close contacts were notified, the governor’s office said.

“They are in the process of being re-interviewed by public health officials in light of the identification of the UK variant as the cause of their illnesses,” the governor’s office said.

One of the people who tested positive is no longer in self-isolation, while the other person is still quarantining at home, the governor’s office said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been notified about the two Connecticut cases, the governor’s office said.

Health officials believe the strain is more infectious based on how quickly it became prevalent in England.

Since November, state health departments and other agencies have sent samples of the virus to the CDC for sequencing needed to spot different strains of the virus.

“The UK variant is widely assumed to be more highly transmissible than other strains of the virus,” said Deidre Gifford, acting commissioner of the state Department of Public Health. She said not everyone who tests positive will know if they have the strain, and echoed Lamont in calling for people to continue following precautions against the virus.

Scientists believe the two vaccines in use in the United States will still be effective against the B.1.1.7 strain.

“The virus would likely need to accumulate multiple mutations in the spike protein to evade immunity induced by vaccines or by natural infection,” the CDC said.

As of Thursday, 99,929 people have received their first dose of the vaccine in Connecticut, while 1,805 have also received their second and final dose.

Lamont highlighted those numbers as a success, noting that Connecticut was sixth in the nation in terms of percentage vaccinated. He said Connecticut leads the way when compared to states with a population greater than 2 million people.

“We’re doing pretty well on that front,” the governor said.

By Friday, he said, the state will have completed all of its first-dose clinics at nursing homes.

The state has also begun vaccinating those in assisted living facilities, Gifford said, and plans to vaccinate others in long-term care facilities, including residential care homes and low-income senior housing.

Gifford said those who are eligible to receive the vaccine should do so.

A subcommittee on the governor’s vaccine advisory group this week expanded the list of people who will be eligible to get the vaccine in the next wave. The list, based on guidelines from the CDC, now includes residents of congregate settings, such as prison inmates, as well as staff.

Lamont said a timeline for people in the next phase of distribution, called 1B, will be released next week. The rollout will likely begin with those over the age of 75 not living in nursing homes, he said.

The rollout aims to vaccinate some 800,000 people, according to Lamont.

But questions still remain about exactly who else will be included in the next wave. Members of the vaccine advisory group’s allocations subcommittee could not come to a consensus this week on how to ensure the next phase will include those who are disproportionately affected by the disease, such as communities of color.

Gifford said the group plans to meet again next week and may expand the list slightly to address that concern.

That comes as the governor’s office has also raised concern about some health care workers not willing to take the vaccine.

“You know hesitancy is real … but we see it especially in communities of color,” said Dr. Reginald Eadie, CEO at Trinity Health of New England and co-chair of the vaccine advisory group.

During Lamont’s press conference, the governor shared a clip of Verna Redwood, a certified nursing assistant, who said she got vaccinated because she watched “a lot of my patients die” and because her grand-daughter was diagnosed with diabetes.

“I really would like people to step up — my coworkers, my union members — and take the vaccine,” she said.