Stamford testing

By mid-May the state will be able to significantly ramp up testing beyond the current 18,000 a week, medical officials and Gov. Ned Lamont announced on Tuesday.

“We could increase our testing capacity by maybe 10 times over the next month or so,” Lamont said. “That would dramatically improve and accelerate our ability to get back to work.”

More testing will give the state a much better idea of who can return to work and help Connecticut recover some of its lost economic activity in the coronavirus shutdown, the governor said during his daily briefing in the State Capitol, where he was joined in a teleconference by officials from Hartford Health Care and Quest diagnostics.

But officials are still unsure whether those who recover from bouts with COVID-19 develop the kind of immunity that helps people battle reinfections of other viruses.

The state Department of Public Health announced that 92 more people died from COVID-19-related causes between Monday and Tuesday, bringing the statewide total to 1,423. But continuing decrease in hospitalization indicate that the peak is over in Fairfield County and starting to decrease in New Haven County as the pandemic moves more into the Hartford region. 

Lamont said Quest Diagnostics has agreed to ramp up testing and is fully supplied to increase testing drastically by mid-May, meaning essential workplaces will get a better idea of the health of their work forces, while those whose businesses have been closed in the shutdown will get closer to planning reopening dates.

Health officials are concerned about the percentages of state residents who might be infected with COVID-19, but have not shown symptoms, so they can be spreading infections without knowing it. “About 40 percent of the people who are infected don’t even show symptoms yet, and right now we only are able to test people who are showing symptoms, so we’re missing a lot of the folks out there,” Lamont said. “It’s important that we’re able to capture that if we’re even able to get back to work safely.”

Mobile testing facilities will journey throughout the state and samples will get analyzed within 24 hours.

Jeffrey Flaks, president and CEO of Hartford Health Care, whose facilities include Hartford Hospital and St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, said the expanded ability of Quest, whose CEO Steve Rusckowski is a Torrington native, will help all its outpatient locations go up drastically from the current 500 tests a day to 2,600 for that system.

So far in the state health crisis, 64,192 people have been tested and 20,360 have been found to have COVID-19, according to state health officials.

“We need that test information,” said Rusckowski, who said that about half the tests in the state are currently performed by his company, which employs 850 people statewide. “The first information is whether you are infected or not. What we believe will be helpful as we bring Connecticut back to work and bring life back to Connecticut is to be able to test for individuals to see for the broad population if they are expressing some of these anti-bodies.”

Once someone is infected, anti-bodies start to become measurable after a couple weeks, Rusckowski said. “We believe there will be studies that will be done, and they’re highly likely to show that those anti-bodies will provide some immunity for a period of time. We’ve seen it in other viruses and we’re hopeful that’ll be the case with coronavirus as well.”

He said that two tests will be needed, with the second, an eventual blood test, to determine whether someone has developed anti-bodies that can possibly create an immunity.

Rusckowski said that in Connecticut, Quest has about 120 patient service centers, with technicians drawing blood all over the state. He stressed that capacity is becoming easier for the company over the last four weeks, including the acquisition of chemical reagents to complete tests.

“I can tell you we have a number of our hospitals around the state that are already doing anti-body testing right now, maybe focused on first responders, see those folks, see who’s been infected, see who’s built up the anti-bodies,” Lamont said. He hopes for a broader base of people to test. “I think we’ll focus a little bit on those critical industries where I said we’ve got to keep them going in many cases by law, like defense industries,” he said.

Earlier in the day, private nonprofit social service providers warned that the coronavirus is devastating their budgets and threatening their employees and residents, including halfway houses and other residential facilities.

“These folks are health care providers on the front lines and they should be treated as such,” said Gian-Carl Casa, president and CEO of The Alliance: Voice of CT Nonprofits, during a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.

Paul Mounds, Lamont’s chief of staff, said that non-profits were given fourth-quarter funding earlier than usual to non-profit providers. The fiscal year ends June 30. “We will always continue to have conversations and discussions with them as it deals with the services they provide on behalf of the people of Connecticut through our budgetary structure,” Mounds said during the news conference.

kdixon@ctpost.com, Twitter: @KenDixonCT