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Updated: Region hit with COVID-19 ‘clusters’

‘We haven’t seen this level of COVID-19 viral load, even during the first wave.’ — Dr. Mark Hirko, Sharon Hospital president


Updated October 23, 2020, 8:30 p.m.

Click here for a column by Dr. Mark Hirko, President, Sharon Hospital, on the need for vigilance and preparedness.

In a 24-hour period last week, a wave of positive COVID-19 cases hit the Northwest Corner, with 17 new positive test results at Geer Village in North Canaan, and flare-ups reported at The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville (four cases), North Canaan Elementary School (three cases) — and  (on Oct. 19) Sharon Center School.

No positive test results have been reported at the other area schools or at Noble Horizons in Salisbury or Sharon Health Care Center, the other two senior facilities in the region. Sharon Health Care is no longer a state-designated COVID-19 Recovery Facility.

In response, Sharon Hospital has restricted visitors from entering its building and has expanded COVID-19 testing hours as a public service, starting this week.

Health officials and community leaders in the affected towns have mobilized to try and address the surge in COVID-19 positive test results together.

“This came out of the blue. We haven’t seen this level of COVID-19 viral load, even during the first wave” of the pandemic during the spring, said Dr. Mark Hirko, president of Sharon Hospital, in a phone interview Saturday, Oct. 17.  “I’m jumping on it proactively. 

“All it takes is one exposure, and we can be decimated within 24 hours,” he said.

Random testing 

Hirko, who referred to the new cases reported Friday, Oct. 16, as “COVID clusters,” said all individuals who received positive COVID-19 results during random testing at Geer Village and The Hotchkiss School had been asymptomatic at the time of the tests.

Geer Village, which had remained COVID-free throughout the first wave of the pandemic, immediately closed its campus to visitors once again in order to halt the contagion. 

Senior facilities and nursing homes had been restricted in the early months of the pandemic, but had just opened to limited numbers of visitors as part of the state’s Phase 3 re-opening plan.

On Saturday, Geer CEO Kevin O’Connell said that 11 residents and six staff members had tested positive for COVID-19. On Monday, Oct. 19, he confirmed that no additional cases had been identified.

Four boarding students at Hotchkiss, which is a private high school, had tested positive for COVID-19. The Region One School District has now reported five positive cases: one at Cornwall Consolidated School before the first day of classes; three new cases in North Canaan; and one new case at Sharon Center School.

There is no known common link causing the surge.

Officials working together

 In response to the emergence of new cases in the Northwest Corner, a group of community leaders including the head of the Torrington Area Health District and state Rep. Maria Horn (D-64), met Saturday, Oct. 17, on a virtual call to share information and coordinate communication to the public.

Horn reported in an email to constituents that no COVID-19 positive test results have been reported at Noble Horizons or Sharon Health Care Center.

And she added that, “The Department of Public Health has confirmed multiple times to me that they do not intend to send COVID-positive patients to Sharon Health Care Center in any surge planning for the fall.” 

New COVID-specific facilities have now been prepared at larger nursing centers around the state, in facilities that had been closed down but were renovated over the summer and are now prepared to accept recovering COVID-19 patients.

Going by the playbook

Hirko said in light of the recent uptick in cases, Sharon Hospital has deployed its “COVID Playbook” of response plans for COVID-19 outbreaks. 

“We’ve already started employing it, and it is working like clockwork,” said the hospital president, who noted that the possibility of a temporary field hospital returning to his facility is not being considered at this time and would only occur should the hospital become “overwhelmed.”

Last spring, in the early months of the pandemic, members of the state militia had constructed large field tents at several hospitals around Connecticut. One was in the parking lot at Sharon Hospital.

At this time, in an effort to keep patients and staff safe, no visitors are permitted to see any patients at Sharon Hospital unless extenuating circumstances apply, such as an end-of-life scenario, said Hirko.

Until further notice, Sharon Hospital’s front main entrance on Hospital Hill Road will remain closed, and all individuals must use the Emergency Department to enter the hospital. Individuals will be screened for risk factors of COVID-19 at the emergency department entrance.

Community testing 

Sharon Hospital has temporarily expanded its testing hours. Details on the location and hours and appointment information is available on the hospital’s website at www.patients.healthquest.org/covid-19-testing. The tests began on Monday, Oct. 19. 

In response to phone calls about the status of patient services at this time, Hirko stressed that hospital operations will continue as usual. “We have had COVID-positive patients in the hospital all along. There has been an average of between zero and four patients at any particular time, so nothing has changed, with the exception of visitor restrictions.”

What is concerning, said Hirko, is that all of the individuals who contracted the virus were not showing signs of illness at the time they were tested. “Everybody positive at Geer had been asymptomatic.” The same was true of students at Hotchkiss, he said, who were randomly tested upon arriving at the campus. He said he has no doubt that COVID-19 had been “smoldering over the summer.”

Geer in lockdown

At Geer Village, CEO Kevin O’Connell said all necessary precautions — including contact tracing, testing, isolation of infected residents, safety protocols and lockdown — are being used to halt the spread.

He said the 11 residents who tested positive have been isolated. Geer staff has not moved  between its buildings since the beginning of the pandemic. The YMCA on the campus has also been completely closed off from the senior facility; there is a separate entrance now and no Geer residents can enter the fitness center, and no fitness members can enter the senior facility.

While there are no reported cases at the Nursing & Rehabilitation facility, Geer is working with local and state authorities to create a plan for testing there as a precaution. 

O’Connell said Geer is waiting for the results of about 65 additional tests, so the total number of positives could change in the coming days.

“We are having a surge in the Northwest Corner, and Geer is in the middle of it,” said O’Connell, who noted that “many other places, including public and private schools” are seeing a rise in positive test results as well. “The key is to realize that it has always been out there,” he said, noting that all the positive cases at Geer were asymptomatic. “That’s the insidious nature of the disease,” he said.

Geer leadership participated in the coordinating call with the Torrington Area Health District (TAHD) and town and school officials on Saturday, Oct. 17. During the call O’Connell said he was informed of an alarming trend: “The Torrington Area Health District had 60 new cases reported just today,” he said.

The health district works with 18 area towns, including five of the six towns in the Region One School District (Sharon has its own health district).

O’Connell stressed the importance of communication on the local level, so that “we are all on the same page.” The Geer CEO said pinpointing the root of the spread is challenging. “The virus,” he said, “is everywhere around us.” 

Despite rigorous protocols and safety measures taken throughout the Geer campus, the source of the recent flare-up remains unknown. It could have been spread by a visitor, staff, physician or private contractor, said O’Connell. “We were hopeful we could have made it through unscathed, but it’s a roll of the dice.”

Four cases at Hotchkiss

At Hotchkiss, Chief Communications Officer Hope Cobera said in a phone interview on Sunday, Oct. 18, that the COVID-positive students and any close contacts have been isolated and quarantined at the health center on campus. Students who can travel via private transportation have returned to their homes. 

“In the event a student goes home, they are not taking public transportation,” Cobera stressed.

At this time, she said, all positive cases and any close contacts are all students; no adults have been affected. Over the weekend, all students and “student-facing employees,” those working in close proximity with students, were tested, with results due back in a few days.

Any new cases will be isolated on campus or in their homes off campus, and until test results are in, affected students are under quarantine in their dorm rooms. Classes are being held remotely, and day students are learning from home.

To lessen the risk of exposure, only essential staff are allowed on campus, a safety precaution that was instituted earlier this year, not specifically as a result of the recent flare-up, said Cobera. She further noted that visits to the campus by parents are also restricted.

Surveillance testing of about 10% of the school population will take place weekly. As part of the school’s ongoing safety protocols, students have not been allowed off campus, either to engage in sports activities or to visit town for shopping or other errands. “They have been staying on campus, and that’s been the case the whole year,” said Cobera. 

According to Cobera, The Hotchkiss student body totals 611, with about 520 boarding students and most of the balance enrolled remotely. There is a small number of day students, about half of which are children of faculty members who reside on campus. 

Cobera noted that at the beginning of the school year, in late August, one student had tested positive for COVID-19. All students and student-facing faculty and staff were tested prior to the start of the school year and, upon arrival, students participated in a two-week quarantine in their dorm rooms, or at home in the case of day students. During this period, students were also tested by the school, and one student’s test came back positive. That student and close contacts, all students, were isolated from the rest of the school population or sent home, she said.

Cobera said she is confident that with all the procedures and precautions being taken at Hotchkiss, including contact tracing, testing and limiting visitors and staff on campus, the virus can be kept at bay. “Hotchkiss’s planning and protocols are working as intended and the community should know that students are not out in the community.”

Two schools in Region One

There are now five positive COVID-19 cases that have affected Region One. One staff member in the Cornwall school system tested positive in the late summer; three individuals tested positive last week in the North Canaan school system; and a teacher tested positive in Sharon on Monday. (See sidebar, page A1.)

“All three of the cases in North Canaan were connected to one another. The individuals have been quarantined and all close contacts have been notified and tested. North Canaan Elementary School has not closed, nor have any classrooms been quarantined. There was only one close contact at Housatonic Valley Regional High School as a result of this recent case. That individual has been quarantined and has tested negative,” according to a summary of the Oct. 17 regional leaders meeting sent out by Sharon First Selectman Brent Colley.

Rep. Horn said she will post updates as she receives them, and she encouraged anyone with questions or concerns to contact her at maria.horn@cta.ct.gov

“As we make our way through this challenging time, we can all offer our support to those who have tested positive and redouble our efforts to wear masks in public, practice social distancing and wash hands frequently. We are a region that knows how to take care of each other,” said Horn.

Update: October 21, 2020, 10:30 am
By Cynthia Hochswender

After the issue of Oct. 22 went to press at mid-day on Tuesday, Oct. 20, new information was received on positive test results at area facilities. 

First, from The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Chief Communications Officer Hope Cobera reported on Tuesday evening that the four students who had tested positive last week have been tested again and their result came up negative. 

Those students “cannot return to campus and classes because a repeat SARS-CoV-2 test does not override the original test,” Cobera said. “The students will therefore stay in isolation in order to protect the community, regardless of repeat test results. This follows Centers for Disease Control and Connecticut Department of Public Health guidelines.”

Four of the seven Region One School District schools have now had positive test results in their school community. Our article in the issue of Oct. 22 reported on positives at North Canaan Elementary School and Sharon Center School. On Tuesday evening, the regional superintendent, Lisa Carter, reported that a member of the Lee H. Kellogg School community in Falls Village had tested positive. 
Until that positive result, Falls Village had not reported a single positive test result during the entire pandemic. 

Carter said in the email sent out to Region One families that, “The affected person has never been in the school building and has had no contact with any staff or students other than the student who is in their care. 
“This individual and the student will remain at home in quarantine according to the direction provided by the Torrington Area Health District. There has been no close contact in the school so there is no need to close classrooms or school.”

Cornwall Consolidated School had a positive test result just before the start of the school year. 

The Lakeville Journal will continue to update this article as new information becomes available. 

Update: October 22, 2020, 4 p.m.

As of Wednesday, Oct. 21, Geer had announced that its numbers had increased to seven staff and 19 residents.

Update: October 22, 2020, 4:45 p.m.

On Thursday afternoon, Oct. 26, the Region One School District sent out a notice that two new members of the North Canaan Elementary School community have tested positive. “All family members associated with these cases have been quarantined and are symptom free. These individuals will remain at home in quarantine according to the direction provided by the Torrington Area Health District,” according to the note sent by Interim Superintendent Lisa Carter. 

The school will be closed for cleaning/sanitizing and to allow time for contact tracing on Friday, Oct. 23. School is expected to open again on Monday, Oct. 26.

Update: October 23, 2020, 12:45 p.m.

Dr. Mark Hirko, president of Sharon Hosptal, confirmed on Friday, 10/23 that three staff members have tested positive for COVID-19. The hospital's Infection Control Department is working closely with the state Department of Public Health to conduct contact tracing and determine the source.

The hospital has had one Covid-positive patient who was admitted within the last week for surgery and tested positive while there.

Sharon Hospital remains closed to visitors.To improve the flow of people in and out of hospital, it has altered its entry points: The front entrance is open only for patients and the side entrance is for emergencies and employees.

Update: October 23, 2020, 3:30 p.m.

Region One School District Interim Superintendent shared an update on Friday, Oct. 23, regarding the two new positive test results for community members at North Canaan Elementary School. 

“We have completed the contact tracing for the two positive COVID-19 cases that were reported in the North Canaan Elementary School community yesterday [Oct. 22],” she wrote. “We can report that one of the cases is a student in the middle school and is symptom free. 

“The other is an individual who has never entered the school and has had no contact with the students or staff. Based on the evaluation of the information provided to the Torrington Area Health District and our Medical Advisor, the risk of infection to other students or staff is very low due to the mitigation strategies that are in place in the school. 

“However, out of an abundance of caution, we will be closing the fifth- and sixth-grade classes for North Canaan Elementary School for 14 days beginning today, Friday, Oct. 23, until Wednesday, Nov. 4. Fifth- and sixth-grade students may return to school for in-person learning on Thursday, Nov. 5. 

“The fifth- and sixth-grade students will begin distance learning on Monday, Oct. 26, and will continue through Wednesday, Nov. 4. Classroom teachers will be in contact with the families in these grades as soon as possible with regard to log-in and scheduling information. 

“Everyone who has been in close contact with the positive cases has been contacted and is currently in quarantine as per the direction of the Torrington Area Health District. Siblings of fifth and sixth graders should come to school on Monday.”

Update: October 23, 2020, 8:30 p.m.

As of Friday, Oct. 23, positive COVID-19 cases at Geer Village rose to a total of 35 (26 residents and 9 staff). In addition,a resident passed away Thursday, Oct. 22, who had already been receiving palliative care for an unrelated illness and subsequently tested positive for the virus.

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