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State epidemiologist: Months into the coronavirus pandemic, Connecticut is now in “a very fortunate place”

02.26.2020 - Hartford, Ct. - Connecticut state epidemiologist Dr. Matthew Cartter addresses the media during a February press conference. Photograph by Mark Mirko
02.26.2020 - Hartford, Ct. - Connecticut state epidemiologist Dr. Matthew Cartter addresses the media during a February press conference. Photograph by Mark Mirko (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant)

Connecticut state epidemiologist Dr. Matt Cartter, who has made few public appearances in recent weeks, said this week that he’s feeling “grateful” for the state’s progress in containing the coronavirus, although he said the situation is still not ideal.

COVID-19 hit Connecticut hard early on, as cases spread from the hot spot of New York City into Fairfield County and beyond. By mid- to late-April, the state often saw more than 100 coronavirus-related deaths each day, with a peak of 204 deaths reported on April 20. At the same time, Connecticut had nearly 2,000 patients hospitalized with the virus, threatening to overwhelm the health care system.

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Now, the state has fewer than 100 hospitalized coronavirus patients and this week had two separate days with zero coronavirus-related deaths.

Experts in Connecticut and across the country have said the pandemic is far from over, as evidenced by spiking case numbers in states such as Florida and South Carolina. But in Connecticut, Cartter said he feels fortunate that the state is no longer in the deepest throes of the coronavirus nightmare.

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“The month of April was one of the worst months I can remember,” Cartter said. Now “we’re one of the states with the lowest rate of COVID-19 in the country ... Every day it’s like this, I’m grateful.”

In the last two months, Connecticut hospitals have taken down their temporary overflow structures, eased their visitor restrictions and started up elective surgeries once again. Across the state, businesses have reopened, residents are allowed to eat at restaurants again and some small summer gatherings are back on the calendar.

Connecticut’s main streets and gathering spaces look noticeably different than they did in March, when parts of the state looked eerily abandoned.

Hartford, Ct. - 03/25/2020 - Overhead view of the I84 and I91 interchange during afternoon rush hour. Photograph by Mark Mirko | mmirko@courant.com
Hartford, Ct. - 03/25/2020 - Overhead view of the I84 and I91 interchange during afternoon rush hour. Photograph by Mark Mirko | mmirko@courant.com (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant)

But the world has not returned to pre-coronavirus conditions.

For the foreseeable future, residents are still required to wear masks in public spaces and to social distance as much as possible, a requirement that’s reflected in restaurant seating and beach blanket spacing. And across the state, sidewalk signs identify hospitals and community centers as COVID-19 testing sites, some temporary pop-ups and others more permanent installments.

The state’s testing availability has increased dramatically since the early days of the pandemic, but the official testing strategy has also shifted over time.

At the end of May, Gov. Ned Lamont released a “roadmap for reopening” that called for 100,000 tests per week by June 20 and 170,000 tests per week by the beginning of phase three, which was originally scheduled for mid-July.

But by mid-June, with Connecticut nowhere near those goals, the state’s chief operating officer Josh Geballe said the strategy had shifted to targeted testing of vulnerable populations.

“I’m not convinced any longer that having a goal just for raw number of tests is going to make sense,” Geballe said at the time.

Cartter said it’s a strategy that, based on the numbers, appears to be working.

“We’re doing a lot of testing just to find very few cases,” Cartter said. “We’re in a very fortunate place.”

But he said the testing situation still isn’t ideal — and won’t be until a new type of test is developed. In a perfect world, Cartter said the state would have a widely available, inexpensive and easy-to-use test.

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“We need what’s called a screening test,” he said. “Right now, we just don’t have one that fits the bill.”

The scientific world has begun a flurry of coronavirus-related research in recent months, as researchers across the globe search for better testing strategies and, crucially, a coronavirus vaccine. But those technologies aren’t available yet, and a vaccine is unlikely to be widely available until next year.

Emily Brindley can be reached at ebrindley@courant.com.

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