“Come back again tomorrow I guess”: city faces testing shortages as case numbers rise
Shattered state deal, “overwhelmed” testing sites send city and state officials scrambling to secure tests and masks as schools reopen for the new year.
Sophie Sonnenfeld, Contributing Photographer
As COVID-19 cases surge in New Haven, the city has experienced test kit and essential workforce shortages.
With a 24.55 percent positivity rate in Connecticut as of this Friday, city and state officials are racing to address test kit shortages and rising positivity rates. The city has distributed 9,000 test kits this week, prioritizing COVID-19 tests for essential workers, alders and nonprofits that work with vulnerable groups. Essential workforces in the city, such as teachers, police officers and firefighters, are experiencing staff shortages, yet New Haven Public Schools still opened on Monday as planned.
“We’re continuing to see cases go up,” Mayor Justin Elicker said in a Wednesday press conference. “We are not yet at the peak.”
Rising rates in the state and test kit chaos
Gov. Ned Lamont reported a jump in the state’s positivity rate to 24.55 percent in a COVID-19 update Friday afternoon. Yale New Haven Hospital is no longer accepting visitors because of Connecticut’s high COVID-19 rates.
Elicker noted that 73.9 percent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated.
“So I will say it again,” he said. “Please get vaccinated and get your booster to keep yourself out of the hospital.”
When asked Monday about imposing a booster vaccine mandate for city employees, Elicker said the city does plan to institute such a mandate “at some point,” but that officials are “evaluating when that would be possible.”
The data of how many people have received booster shots is not yet available.
At last Thursday’s presser, New Haven Director of Health Maritza Bond reported that 252 of 441 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in the Yale New Haven Health System are New Haven residents. She also noted 13 pediatric patient hospitalizations, up from zero earlier last week.
According to Elicker, the surge may last three weeks.
To address rising case numbers last week, Lamont had coordinated with local officials across the state in a plan to push out 1.5 million at-home iHealth tests. But distribution events for the anticipated first batch of 500,000 kits scheduled for last Thursday and Friday were quickly halted when Lamont announced last Thursday evening that the state’s agreement with iHealth fell apart.
The state then scrambled to gather 932,000 tests from different sources and by Sunday had given out 357,000 of those tests for distribution, according to CT Insider.
In a press release Sunday afternoon, the city announced plans to begin distributing those rapid antigen tests from the state on Monday. New Haven received 9,000 test kits — with two tests per kit — which will go to especially “vulnerable” residents who are elderly or experiencing homelessness. The next batch of tests from the state that the city is expected to receive later this week will go to families with students in the New Haven public school system who are either symptomatic or who have been exposed to COVID-19.
Testing sites to general public in the city “overwhelmed” by demand and shortages
As case numbers have increased and residents return to work and school, the city has struggled to meet the demand for COVID-19 tests.
“As many have seen and experienced, the testing everywhere has been overwhelmed,” Elicker said at a press conference last Thursday. The COVID-19 saliva testing site on the New Haven Green, one of two New Haven testing sites run by Wren Laboratories and the Connecticut Department of Public Health, was shut down temporarily last Thursday and has since reopened. “They had, like every site, an extreme demand,” Elicker explained.
According to Bond, New Haven does not have its own official testing site, but it supports testing locales such as the state-run Wren sites throughout the city.
Wren Laboratories runs two other Connecticut testing sites in Meriden and Middletown. The New Haven Register reported that with increased testing demands and staff impacted by the virus, Wren decided to shut one of its four sites.
The state-operated Wren site on the Green and the drive-through site at 60 Sargent Drive on Long Wharf opened two weeks ago, accepting walk-ups and appointments for testing. At last Thursday’s press conference, Emergency Services Director Rick Fontana reported the Long Wharf site performed 1,000 tests Thursday and had used up its supply performing 1,100 tests on Wednesday.
“We all regret that we ran out of tests but unfortunately that’s the reality of the very fluid situation we’re dealing with right now,” Elicker said, addressing the closure of the testing site on the Green. “There’s so much demand for tests because of the number of cases we’re seeing and also because people are proactively getting tested so they can interact with each other over the holidays.”
The site on the Green reopened Monday, with the Long Wharf location open from 8 a.m. to noon and the Green in afternoons from 3 to 6 p.m. as before the closure. But the testing sites reopened with a significant drop in capacity — each location could now only perform up to 150 tests per day.
In chilling 25 degree weather just after the Monday press conference, nearly 40 New Haveners had lined up outside the Green’s testing site by 2:30. Two men towards the front of the line said they had been waiting since 1:30. When asked about a backup plan for testing if the site ran out again a woman next in line said with a shrug, “come back again tomorrow I guess.”
City secures and distributes tests to “essential” workers through backup supply
In Wednesday’s press conference, Fire Chief John Alston and Interim New Haven Police Department Chief Renee Dominguez said the fire and police departments have seen an increase of staff absence.
According to Alston, 38 firefighters, 12.6 percent of the department which has a 77 percent vaccination rate, are out due to COVID-19 positive tests or known exposure. No service has been impacted because firefighters are working extra shifts.
Dominguez said that 44 police officers are absent for testing positive and four for known exposure. NHPD, which has a 66 percent vaccination rate, has a 14 percent staff absence.
The city acquired 16,000 rapid antigen tests, separately from tests ordered by the state, for “continuity of government.” Elicker said the city is “triaging” these tests for essential workers including teachers, firefighters, police officers, 911 dispatchers and public works employees.
The city began to distribute the at-home tests Sunday, according to the city’s press release. The tests are currently reserved only for workers with symptoms or a known COVID-19 exposure. The general public are being instructed to use the Wren Labs sites at 60 Sargent Drive or the New Haven Green, or other local testing providers.
Fontana added last Friday that the city expects to receive an additional 5,000 tests this week.
The brand of test kit called Indicaid that the city ordered comes in batches of 25. With the assistance of the Medical Reserve Corps, Fontana said they have been placing tests individually in plastic bags for distribution.
Because they’re packaged differently from the tests the state ordered, Fontata said Thursday that “we can’t put them out to the public.”
Elicker visited a distribution site for NHPS staff Sunday morning at King/Robinson School.
“Our team has an efficient operation going, and it was great to see so many essential city staff coming out to get tests,” he commented in the press release Sunday afternoon. “Particularly it was great to see so many teachers getting tests in order to ensure they’re ready to return safely to work tomorrow morning. We thank everyone for working through this difficult time.”
On Monday, Connecticut State Comptroller Natalie Braswell launched a new program offering financial relief to essential workers in Connecticut who contracted COVID-19. Eligible essential workers can apply for benefits to cover lost wages, out-of-pocket medical expenses and burial expenses online.
N95s arrive from the state
To keep schools open, Elicker said the city has procured N95 non-medical grade masks and will be sharing “a good percentage” with adult staff at New Haven Public Schools.
Last Friday Fontana told the News that the state gave New Haven 20,000 N95s and the city ordered an additional 20,000 from the state. Fontana said they received the first shipment of 6,000 masks from the state Thursday which went directly to New Haven public school teachers and to some private schools who reached out for PPE assistance.
By Monday, Fontana said they had received the total 40,000 N95s from the state.
In last Thursday’s presser, Fontana held out an N95, demonstrating the “foldable” mask and explaining they should be used up to five times, put into a paper bag after use and discarded if it comes into contact with COVID-19. He said the city wanted to provide teachers with the protection of an N95 mask because of its ability to filter 95 percent of air particles through the mask, “whereas a surgical mask doesn’t give you that protection.”
Fontana said the city expected to receive a second mask shipment Friday. “It’s all a huge challenge but this is all hands on deck,” he said.
In Thursday’s presser, Elicker estimated the positivity rate to be triple or quadruple the reported number. He said this could be the case because some residents are conducting at-home tests which are not reported officially and because of asymptomatic residents who do not seek out testing. He added, “I know that people have lots of plans and are tired of the pandemic and want to move on, but the reality is the likelihood of people getting COVID-19 is very high if they go out.”
Considering the rise in case numbers, the City Hall inauguration on Jan. 1 was limited to elected officials and essential city staff only. These essential staff, thirty alders, one Board of Education member and the mayor gathered for the swearing-in ceremony at the Hillhouse High School fieldhouse Saturday.