Hospital

Stamford Hospital nurses wear protective gowns, gloves and masks in an area outside the hospital that has been set up to test for the COVID-19 virus on Tuesday.

HARTFORD — The 68 confirmed cases of COVID-19, announced Tuesday, likely translate to at least 6,800 Connecticut residents infected, the state’s top epidemiologist said, as Gov. Ned Lamont pushed ahead with measures to control and ease the pandemic.

“We’re just at the beginning of this,” said Dr. Matthew Cartter, of the state Department of Public Health. “We know that for every person who tests positive for flu there’s probably 100 others out there who are sick with the flu who never get tested,” he said.

“Right now, if we have 68 positives, you should assume that there’s at least 100 people out there who have COVID-19 for every single positive.”

That may be a lowball estimate, he said.

Cartter believes the state’s roughly 9,000 hospital beds should be enough to handle the viral eruption, which Lamont and the region’s governors are trying to mitigate with historic efforts at social distancing to slow the spread. But if that number proves inadequate, Lamont said dorms and hotels would be converted before the state calls for federal aid to build emergency hospital space, as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has asked.

During a late afternoon news conference at the governor’s mansion in Hartford, under a dramatic sky, Lamont painted a grim picture of the first wave of an insidious virus sweeping north and east from its foothold in southwestern Connecticut.

“It’s accelerating through the state, starting maybe in Westchester County [N.Y.],” Lamont said. “Fairfield County is where the bulk of the incidents are. And now Litchfield County, Hartford and New Haven. Southeast Connecticut is thankfully the last to have an incident there, but we know that’s coming.”

Testing has been hindered not by an unavailability of testing kits, state officials said, but by a shortage of materials such as swabs, masks and protective clothing in doctors’ offices.

During a call with reporters on Tuesday, Ajay Kumar, chief medical officer for Hartford HealthCare, which began drive-thru testing several days ago, acknowledged basic supply shortages but said overall the program is working as intended. Hartford HealthCare operates Hartford Hospital, St. Vincent’s Hospital in Bridgeport and Charlotte Hungerford Hospital in Torrington.

“We are still living in short-supply world,” Kumar said. For the moment, the Hartford testing program is focused on those who most need a test, such as patients who show severe symptoms of coronavirus or have a strong exposure history. He agreed supply shortages pose a problem.

“Any of those items can create a bottleneck,” Kumar said. “This will create a challenge over the next several weeks.”

Economic effects of the pandemic

More than 30,000 people filed unemployment claims between Friday and the end of business Tuesday, hitting the state with an economic body blow and adding further stress to a populace whose daily lives have changed drastically in just a few days. A typical whole week sees about 3,000 claims at a time of low jobless numbers, which was the case in Connecticut and other states until last week.

Lamont and David Lehman, his economic chief, said the state will expand unemployment compensation to include independent contractors, though they didn’t give details. Lehman described several state and federal lending and loan-relief programs and said business tax filing deadlines will be pushed back.

Lamont announced no further closures or restrictions. Asked about possible calls for residents to “shelter in place” in their homes, he said, “the answer to that is not yet,” he said, adding, “the people of Connecticut understand what we’re doing and they’ve stepped up.”

But with only 26 positive tests among the 248 tests completed at the state laboratory, the worst of the infection rate is in the state’s future. “That’s still a very low percentage,” Cartter said. “It won’t be long before we see 40 to 50 percent of those testing positive.”.

He said testing is important but it’s only one tool. “It’s our individual actions that are going to make the difference here,” Cartter said. “The vast majority of people who get this illness will not get very sick. They might think they have a mild cold; be a little achy, not quite normal and be better in a few days. They don’t need to be tested. The test also isn’t useful for people who are not sick.”

Lamont and other state officials promised that people who get sick will be able to obtain financial assistance and maintain their health insurance coverage. He expects Congress to soon act on relief that could bring hundreds of millions of dollars to the state, including two weeks of paid sick leave.

“If the federal government doesn’t get that right, Connecticut will get that right,” Lamont said. “I want you to be able to count on that.”

The governor asked state residents to support local restaurants by ordering take-out, to keep them open at a time when 160,000 jobs have been threatened by Monday’s closure of sit-down food service, as well as recreational facilities, schools and movie theaters. “I come out of small business and I know folks are terrified,” the governor said during the 34-minute news conference.

Lamont stressed the need to deal with any possible further closures, such as shopping malls, on a regional basis with governors from surrounding states like the massive shutdowns ordered Monday. “It’s something we’re looking at,” Lamont told reporters. “I think the people of Connecticut understand the scope of what we’re confronting,” Lamont said.”

The operators of the Connecticut Post mall in Milford announced Tuesday that the mall would close temporarily, effective on Thursday, because of the health risk. The mall operators said it would reopen “when health authorities have reduced social cautions” and it is safe for shoppers.

Attorney General William Tong said Tuesday that 71 allegations of illegal price gouging have been filed with his office.

In addition, state Banking Commissioner Jorge Perez on Tuesday asked state banks and credit union to help small business and consumers. He suggested loosening credit terms for new loans, waiving overdraft and late fees, allowing more money market withdrawals, and deferring some payments. The commissioners also asked lending institutions to also work with loan servicers and collection agencies to help ease consumer stress.

Other events in the fast-breaking public health crisis, included the cancellation of the University of Connecticut spring commencement exercises in May.

Bill Cummings and Dan Haar contributed to this report.