Town Council Learns More on North Branford's COVID-19 Data
East Shore District Health Director Michael Pascucilla discusses North Branford's COVID-19 rates during the Feb. 16 North Branford Town Council virtual meeting. Image Capture from Totoket TV on Facebook )
North Branford's most current COVID-19 data was a topic of discussion with the Town Council on February 16, during a presentation by Mike Pascucilla, director of East Shore District Health Department (ESDHD).
With a recent quarantines required for some Town Hall staff following an outbreak, and a town wide COVID-19 positivity rate that's trending down, but still nearly twice the state average, Pascucilla also addressed the council's call to help reopen Town Hall to public traffic. Additionally, he discussed issues with school sports' social gatherings as a cause of community spread; and shared some positive news about North Branford's higher-than-state average elderly vaccination rate.
By the Numbers
Among all municipalities statewide, the level of North Branford's rate of cases per 100,000 (adjusted for population) was ranked at 36 out of 169 towns as of Feb. 11, on a scale which ranks the highest rate of cases at 1 and the lowest at 169.
"Four weeks ago it was 68, then 48, then 25; and now we did drop to 36 out of 169 towns, but we're still at 36, which is quite high," said Pascucilla.
By comparison, East Haven was ranked 10th; Branford 43rd, Madison at 107 and Guilford at 136.
Pascucilla added that, if the data had further "teased out" some of the state's smaller communities, a truer ranking for North Branford would actually show the town as having the 26th highest rate of positivity of municipalities statewide.
"Depending on how you want to view it statistically [whether ranked] 36 or 26 out of 169 towns, we don't want to be at the top of this list; we want to be at the bottom of this list," said Pascucilla.
He also noted that, "...other trending data shows we're moving down, but we're not moving down at the same rate, which means there is still a considerable amount of community spread going on."
Pascucilla shared a four-week state calculated data window (Jan. 8 – Feb. 11) showing North Branford's positivity rate has gone down, but remains nearly twice the state average of 2.98 percent. The rate was 7.5 percent in week one, 6.7 percent in week two, 6.5 percent in week three and, as of Feb. 11, 5.6 percent.
"So we'll have to see where trending data goes for rest of the month," said Pascucilla. "While it shows a slowing, there's still significant community spread."
North Branford's COVID-19 cases were in the low single digits over the summer, but spiked to 44 in October, 117 in November, 277 in December, 231 in January and, as of halfway through February, 106 cases. Also in February, North Branford became one of the first towns in the state identified to have the more infectious B.1.1.7 (United Kingdom) variant, as reported Feb. 2.
Consistent with other towns statewide, North Branford's positive cases for COVID-19 are highest in two age categories: ages 20 – 29 and ages 50 – 59. Together, the two age groups make up nearly 50 percent of all the town's cases. With about 37 percent of North Branford residents falling into the age 55 – 64 demographic, "...that's a population we're really focusing on looking at how to get the vaccine to them, especially when we have more vaccine," said Pascucilla.
Weighing the Risks at Town Hall
Speaking on Feb. 16, Pascucilla said while a lot has been done in Town Hall to reduce risk of spread, at this point in time, his recommendation would be to wait a bit longer before reducing restrictions to re-open the building to the public.
"It would be my recommendation, as your public health director... let's see how the data trends in the next week or so, and if we continue in that downward trend, then maybe think about loosening some restrictions," said Pascucilla. "But right now ... given that data, it's in our best interest to put on the brakes a bit more, and continue the course."
When pressed by some Town Council members as to why schools, as well as restaurants, retail and other entities, such as police, fire and public works, are functioning while Town Hall is remaining under restrictions, Pascucilla said the safety measures, protocols and precautions in place with schools, together with the lower impact COVID-19 has on the student-aged population, make them "a different animal." He also noted the Town Hall's relatively small staff is responsible for much of the function of town government, which could be impacted due to quarantines or other measures.
"We have a number of outbreaks that are happening in food service establishments, and we are actively investigating one right now in another community for a grocery store where we have a number of individuals who are sick," said Pascucilla. "But they're not critical to the operation of a town. They can bring in part-timers, they have a large staff. Your staff is very small, and a couple of people in the department can shut down the assessor's office, the town clerk's office."
Deputy Mayor Thomas Zampano felt some additional management of activity at the facility and stricter guidelines that have to be adhered to by the public could go a long way toward addressing the issue. Councilman Mike Doody noted some residents are complaining about the inaccessibility to Town Hall.
"As a matter of clarity, I'm not saying you can't open Town Hall," said Pascucilla. "It's just a recommendation and it's in line with what other Town Halls are doing."
Council member Rose Marie Angeloni noted that as well as schools remaining operational, the Town's police and fire departments continue operating during the pandemic. Council member Walter Goad noted that public works has also remained open and operating.
Pascucilla responded that "...Police and Fire have been impacted with COVID-19 and there are individuals in quarantine. So they have been impacted."
With regard to opening up Town Hall, "...if you want to loosen the restrictions, we can do that," Pascucilla told the council. "But we just have to be mindful of the unintended consequences. [Rates] are still high in the community. [Most] Town Hall employees do not have their vaccines."
Following further discussion with the council, Pascucilla said he could work with Town Manager Michael Paulhus and his team at Town Hall, "...about seeing how we can be a little be more open for business, and have some traffic."
"But just understand, with the increase in traffic, there's an increase in risk," Pascucilla cautioned. "We have to be prepared, that if we do that, and we do have an outbreak again in Town Hall, then departments and services will be impacted...we can do it, but we have to accept the level of risk that comes with it; and is now a good time, given the numbers, or do you wait a bit? That's a decision for the town to make. We can be part of that decision and try to find that sweet spot," he said. "You are the leadership of the town and make the decisions. But I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't give you full disclosure on the impact."
Updates regarding Town Hall, together with information on services and how to reach staff by phone and online can be found at https://www.townofnorthbranfordct.com/
School Safety Protocols vs. Sports and Social Events
During the 2020-21 academic year, North Branford Public Schools have kept school buildings open for in-person learning, with administration working with ESDHD to follow restrictions, implement cohorting and other measures to quickly and efficiently address cases that may emerge, using programs including track and trace, said Pascucilla.
"Yes, we have some cases that may enter the school, but as soon as we find out about them, they are quickly removed," said Pascucilla, adding the school systems have "firewalls" and "safety measures" in place.
"We're just not seeing, in schools, community spread," said Pascucilla.
That being said, school sports and socializing can't mix, he emphasized.
"We cannot have safe sports and social events," Pascucilla said. "A lot of the outbreaks that we've investigated involve sports; but many times you really can't find out exactly what's causing it. In some cases we know that there's a lot of social gatherings around sports."
On Feb. 16, ESDHD had just learned social events appeared to be the cause of three different outbreaks involving area sports teams, he noted.
"We have to think about scaling back on the social aspects – car pooling, pizza parties, fundraising," said Pascucilla. "We can't have both. The data shows it. They just started [winter sports] and already we're having outbreaks."
While COVID-19 positivity reported among the younger population generally results in asymptomatic responses or, if a student becomes sick, mild symptoms; it still adds to a risk of community spread to others, such as adults, who can be more negatively impacted.
"Adults are different than students. It's not the same way with this virus," said Pascucilla.
Making Vaccination Progress
As of Feb. 10, among North Branford's 14,146 residents, 15.38 percent have received first doses of the vaccine, with 70.49 percent of those first-dose vaccinations going into the arms of the most vulnerable age group, residents age 75 and over.
Pascucilla said North Branford's vaccination rates for first doses given to elderly residents are better than the state average of 53 percent. North Branford has 1,247 residents age 75 and over.
Statewide, 8 percent of CT's population is 75 and older and the age group represents 71 percent of CT's fatalities since the start of the pandemic. The state's residents age 65 and older make up 18 percent of CT's population and represent 88 percent of statewide COVID-19 fatalities, to date.
Over the course of the pandemic, the majority of the town's 17 fatalities, to date, were among elderly, including those in assisted living/nursing homes. No deaths have occurred recently in North Branford, said Pascucilla.
Both the 75 and up and the 65 and older age groups are now part of the focus of the second phase of the vaccination effort, Phase 1b, which will be in place for the next three to four weeks.
ESDHD has helped set up senior center vaccination programs in North Branford, Branford, East Haven, Guilford and Madison, the five towns designated as area 21 of CT's Mass Vaccination Dispensary program. The senior center weekly clinics are in addition to area 21 designated vaccination sites at Branford High School and the Madison Town Hall Campus, Pascucilla noted.
The senior centers, especially North Branford, have been very successful in delivering available vaccine, said Pascucilla. Second doses (given four weeks after the first dose) are set to begin distribution, by appointment, through the North Branford Senior Center and other senior centers in the vaccination area during the week of Feb. 22, weather permitting.
As of Feb. 16, CT was receiving about 60,000 vaccines a week, much less than desired; and half of those doses received have to be put aside for second shots, Pascucilla noted. He said the state is fighting to receive more vaccine amidst a "global fight" for doses. He said last week's supply of 300 for the five towns in area 21 was much less than desired. The vaccines are being divided equally among the five towns when received.
Pascucilla said Governor Ned Lamont is hard at work to assist CT in receiving more doses; and that a third manufacturer's vaccine is set to come online in the near future, helping to ease supply.
"Right now, we've got to hang tight, and we get what we get, and we do our best," said Pascucilla.
He also pointed out that, "...right now we have a supply [problem]...at some point, when the vaccine becomes widespread, we may have a delivery issue [giving] people their shot."
He said several hurdles slow down the process, at present.
"The problem with the vaccine is now there's two doses [and] a new federal data base that slows us down a bit; and unlike a flu vaccination, people have to wait 15 minutes to 30 minutes afterwards. And we have the social distancing component -- there's only so many people that can go through a clinic per hour," said Pascucilla. "That's one of the things my staff and I are working on; looking at larger sites."
As part of that research, Pascucilla said his staff has been speaking with Superintendent of Schools Scott Schoonmaker, "...so when teachers come on line, we're looking at doing vaccinations at North Branford High School."
Pascucilla said it will likely be mid- to late-March before the state's next vaccination phase will kick in, which will allow for the vaccination of frontline essential workers/school staff and individuals with underlying medical conditions creating an increased risk for severe illness.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to expand area COVID-19 vaccination sites, ESDHD recently worked with Shoreline Family Health Center in Branford to enter an agreement to become a vaccination clinic, starting on Feb. 20, by appointment for eligible residents of North Branford, Branford and East Haven, the three towns regularly served by ESDHD. The agreement follows along the same lines as a clinic already operational through ESDHD with CT Hospice in Branford. Soon, CVS Pharmacy in East Haven (Foxon Road) will also become a ESDHD vaccination clinic site, said Pascucilla.
He said another area that still needs to be addressed by the state is getting vaccine to the homebound.
"At this time, being homebound is at lower risk [for COVID-19]; but as a state, we have to figure this one out," said Pascucilla.
Additionally, ESDHD is working with several area pharmacy groups to set up vaccination programs for those living in senior housing, when vaccine supplies allow.
COVID-19 vaccination appointments for eligible residents can be made by enrolling in the state's Vaccination Administration Management System at https://dphsubmissions.ct.gov/onlinevaccine For more information on COVID-19 and area updates from ESDHD, visit esdhd.org