As Biden rolls out new COVID plan, CT hospitalizations highest since April

COVID-19 infections continue to spike with the state reporting on Thursday the highest positivity rate for new tests since January and the most hospitalizations since April.

COVID-19 infections continue to spike with the state reporting on Thursday the highest positivity rate for new tests since January and the most hospitalizations since April.

Matthew Brown / Hearst Connecticut Media

President Joe Biden vowed to fight the COVID omicron variant with “science and speed” as more cases with the new strain were detected Thursday in the U.S., while most of Connecticut’s municipalities are again considered to have elevated infection rates.

Connecticut reported on Thursday a daily positivity rate of 6.52 percent — the highest since late January — and 29 more hospitalizations. There are now 414 COVID-related hospitalizations — the most since April 26, outpacing the early spike from the delta variant over the summer. The state also reported 44 more COVID-related deaths in the past week.

According to the state’s color-coded map for COVID infection rates, 137 of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities are now in the “red” zone for having a daily average of 15 cases per 100,000 people over a two-week period. Stamford, Danbury and Weston are among the few municipalities that are not in the red zone.

The rising infection rate comes amid mounting concerns over the omicron variant, which was first found in South Africa last month, and has been associated with several confirmed cases in the United States, including at least five in New York.

While cases associated with the omicron variant have not yet been discovered in Connecticut, the highly transmissible delta variant continues to account for nearly all infections studied in the state.

Biden on Thursday presented a new plan to combat COVID this winter, including setting up hundreds of family vaccination clinics across the country, pushing all eligible adults 18 and older to get booster shots, and expanding access to free, at-home testing, which will be covered by private insurers or provided by community health centers.

But Biden’s strategy makes it clear there is no political appetite for imposing new restrictions — he did institute new testing rules for international travelers — and instead relies on doubling down on the mitigation measures that have already been in place like vaccinations, masking and testing.

“If I were to provide any criticism, it’s in large part more of the same in terms of what’s already been in the works,” said Dr. Richard Martinello, medical director of Infection Prevention for Yale New Haven Hospital. “But reinvigorating those efforts is the right thing to do.”

While political leaders like Biden and Gov. Ned Lamont have focused their messaging on vaccinations and booster shots during this phase of the pandemic, public health officials have said that alone will not be enough and welcomed efforts in the federal plan to expand testing.

Biden also extended the mask mandate that applies to airplanes, trains and buses, and in terminals and transit hubs, through mid-March. But some public health experts say officials need to do more.

“I know they’re being cautious here, but mask-wearing, it’s cheap, safe and effective. We should be doing more of that,” Martinello said. “They’re passing it off to communities to make that decision and I think they’re avoiding it at least in the high-level sketch of their plan to try to minimize how divisive it may be.”

In Connecticut, Lamont has left the decision of whether people should wear masks to municipal leaders, who largely have lifted local mask mandates — essentially making it a personal decision. People who are unvaccinated are still required to wear masks in indoor public settings, per state rules.

Lamont, who is not considering any new restrictions, has emphasized how the state is much better positioned to combat the virus now than it was a year ago due to vaccinations, including among children, and antiviral treatments that could be available in a matter of weeks.

“World of difference today compared to a year ago,” he told reporters Thursday after speaking at an economic summit in Hartford.

Another key part of Biden’s plan is for at-home tests to be reimbursed for people with private insurance — about 150 million Americans. Though that will not happen right away. His administration is preparing additional guidance on how the reimbursement process will work. The administration plans to distribute an additional 15 million tests to community health centers and rural clinics for those without insurance or who are covered by Medicaid.

Mark Masselli, president of Community Health Center Inc., one of Connecticut’s major testing providers, said the health center received a shipment of thousands of home tests on Wednesday and expects to receive 100,000 in total, which it will make available to its patients across the state.

“They’re quick, view-at-home kits,” Masselli said. “They come with two tests with really simple instructions, and they’re designed to have them both used within a 36-hour period.”

Self-testing COVID kits, available at most pharmacies, have become more common this year. But the U.S. has lagged behind other countries in providing these tests for free or at a very low cost. A package of two can cost as much as $25.

While not as reliable as the PCR tests used at hospitals, doctors offices and testing sites, “it is a reasonable test to do at home” and “better than not testing at all,” Martinello said.

Overall, testing for the disease has increased slightly in Connecticut. As of last week, the seven-day average for new tests administered in Connecticut has hovered around 35,000 a day, according to state records. Masselli said the health center is seeing increased demand for testing and the state should think about scaling up its surveillance.

“A month ago, we had adequate capacity in Connecticut,” he said. “I don’t think we do today.”

julia.bergman@hearstmediact.com