Face the Facts: DPH Commissioner Explains Why COVID-19 Response Has Changed

DPH Commissioner Dr. Manisha Juthani explains why the response to the recent spike in COVID cases is much different than it would have been a year ago. 

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With the COVID-19 positivity rate approaching 14%, another variant seems to be racing through the state.

But mask mandates and lockdowns aren't being mentioned at all these days.

Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Manisha Juthani talks about where Connecticut is and where we're headed in terms of COVID-19.

Mike Hydeck: "So last year, if we went on the air talking about 14% positivity rates, we would also be most likely mentioning restrictions on businesses, and schools, etc. So what's different now?"

Manisha Juthani: "We're in a very different place in this pandemic than we were last year or than we were two and a half years ago. So as you mentioned, if we were at 14% positivity rate, our hospitalizations would also have been much, much higher in the past. So there are several reasons for this. First of all, we know that the virus is less virulent than it was before. We know that we have a very highly vaccinated population, and people are getting milder forms, which is a good thing. Even if they're getting infection, that is a good sign in terms of our response to this pandemic. And we have therapeutics, whether it be in the hospital, things like Remdesivir, and steroids, monoclonal antibodies or oral antivirals, like Paxlovid. So when you have the full repertoire of a response to an infectious disease, including mitigation strategies like masking, vaccinations and therapeutics, we're now in a very, very different phase of this pandemic than where we were two and a half years ago."

Mike Hydeck: "So as a parent of kids, with kids in school, we are getting COVID notices regularly, emails practically on a daily basis. But in those emails, and I'm just talking about my own situation here, contact tracing is no longer being discussed. Are regional health departments still doing that right now?"

Manisha Juthani: "So we stopped recommending contact tracing many, many months ago. And there are schools that choose to do it on a case-by-case basis. So if there is a cluster of children who maybe were in one activity together, at one big event together, there may be more contact tracing that's happening at a local level, because that's the best way to try to mitigate an outbreak if there are multiple people that were at the same event. But in terms of routine practice, we are no longer recommending contact tracing. So most districts are not doing that to the same degree as they were before."

Mike Hydeck: "So this week, as Governor Lamont was out campaigning and talking about the budget, he said he thinks advising and suggesting things to people when it comes to protection during a COVID spike is the way to go, not mandates in the near future. Is that your opinion as well?"

Manisha Juthani: "Yes, I think that's my opinion, as well. First of all, our hospitalizations, though they have gone up, we have many counties, six of eight right now, that are in the orange range, where we are recommending masking indoors, we do not have hospitalizations at a rate where the whole healthcare system is at a breaking point where a mandate, or even approaching a breaking point where a mandate would be necessary. So we are again at a different phase because we do have ways that people can be treated. That doesn't take away from the fact that I would recommend masking in many of our counties, and we have a lot of disease transmission regardless. So even in our counties that are not at the point of potentially affecting our health care system at the same level, which would be, for example, Fairfield County and New London County last week, Tolland County this week, that even if they're not at that level, there is a lot of virus out there. If you're worried about getting COVID, about having to isolate for days on end, it's a good idea to wear a mask right now."

Mike Hydeck: "So in recent weeks, we actually have had several school districts take days off. They're using what's left of their snow days, but literally, they had so many staff members test positive that they had to close for a few days. With that type of spread, should there be a stronger push for masking and booster shots? We're still trying to preserve things like graduations and prom right now."

Manisha Juthani: "Absolutely. We've been advocating for local districts, local leaders, schools and superintendents to utilize all the tools that are at their disposal. We have seen two years of school where for many kids in Connecticut, they were able to be in the classroom. Maybe it was hybrid for a while, maybe it was back in-person full-time. We know that masking works, so schools have to make those choices. And I know they're tough choices. I know that there are tough choices to be able to then enforce in a local community, in a local classroom, in a local district. But the schools have all the tools at their disposal. We are encouraging schools to have vaccine clinics, booster clinics. All of these are things that we can partner with schools in the state as well since we are running these types of clinics and continue to do so. And the schools, as I said, have the tools including masking to be able to help the spread of virus in a school district."

Mike Hydeck: "Last question, I have a little less than a minute, did we ever reach herd immunity with all the infections and then vaccinations and boosters? Or is that not even possible?"

Manisha Juthani: "Well, I think it's unfortunate what we've seen with variants that have occurred and with every new subvariant and variant that has occurred, that the virus is mutating quite quickly. And we can see from the number of infections that we have that we do not have herd immunity, because otherwise, you would not have as much infection as exists currently in our community. But having said that, what we have seen is that with all the vaccinations that we've been able to have distributed in our state and that people stepped up and took, the virus is being less virulent, it's less severe people are having less severe forms of the illness and that is a win for vaccines in our community."

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