The Day – Norwich distributes COVID-19 test kits, searches for additional state test sites and relief for schools


Norwich – The ever-changing COVID-19 picture and renewed sense of urgency in response to critical staffing issues in schools and the demand for tests dominated a conference call between city guides, lawmakers and local health and education authorities on Friday morning.

The recent surge in COVID-19 also prompted Mayor Peter Nystrom to revert to the early pandemic plan of holding the conference call weekly instead of twice a month.

The city’s COVID-19 case rate increased from 64.9 per 100,000 residents and a 10% test positive rate in the two weeks December 5-15 to 151.5 cases per 100,000 residents and a positive test rate of 20.9% over the period from December 19 to January 1, Patrick McCormack, director of the Uncas health district, told callers.

The rising cases have put a strain on school systems across the region. Norwich Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow and Norwich Free Academy’s principal Brian Kelly said every day this week that they were on the verge of closing schools due to staff shortages or critical shortages of bus drivers.

But a government order stating that completely removed learning days are not counted towards the required minimum of 180 learning days, leaves the school administrators only a few options. Stringfellow said if Norwich schools have to close – as Stonington did on Monday and Tuesday – and make up for the days in June, “I’ll run out of June.” Friday was the first snowy day of the season.

Kelly added that the move to distance learning while those days have yet to be made up at the end of the year poses contractual issues as teacher contracts have a maximum number of teaching days. Kelly said he asked teachers to work “non-stop” the day and skip the sessions reserved for classroom preparation to cover absent teachers.

“It’s just not sustainable,” said Kelly.

Kelly and Stringfellow seek help from lawmakers. Both spoke with State Senator Cathy Osten to ask for discharge for the minimum 180-day school year. “Even just five days would help,” said Stringfellow.

Osten said she raised the issue in vain with Governor Ned Lamont’s staff. She said lawmakers must take the minimum of 180 days during the upcoming short term, which begins Feb. 9.

The conference call attendees also addressed the need to expand COVID-19 testing as the state-sponsored drive-through testing site at the Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium in Norwich is inaccessible to many residents without vehicles, or the sometimes three to four Can’t wait hours in line.

Jennifer Granger, president and CEO of United Community and Family Services, a health care provider serving low-income residents across the region, said she spoke with officials from the State Department of Public Health about the need to expand the testing sites in Norwich. She said civil servants prefer an indoor location.

The city guides met after the conference call and decided to recommend three possible locations with better access: the Norwich Transportation Center on Falls Avenue, St. Mary’s Church on Central Avenue in Greeneville, and the soup kitchen on St. Vincent de Paul Place on 120 Cliff St.

City Manager John Salomone said the traffic center would be best used only as a testing ground for Southeast Area transit bus drivers or walk-up people. He said using the site as a transit would create traffic jams at the busy intersection of Falls Avenue and West Main Street. McCormack suggested that the transportation center could be set up as an appointment-only location.

Mayor Peter Nystrom said he hoped all three of the city’s locations could be used to expand test access.

Norwich has also received an additional 2,600 COVID-19 rapid home test kits and will be distributing approximately 1,400 of them to the public in a drive-through event starting Saturday lunchtime in front of Kelly Middle School on Mahan Drive. Recipients must bring proof of their Norwich residency and are limited to two test kits of two COVID-19 tests per household. A limited number of adult N95 masks are also distributed.

The distribution configuration requires a strict traffic pattern as Mahan Drive is being converted into one-way traffic. Recipients must drive Mahan Drive through Mohegan Park along Wilderness Road to John Edward Drive, turn right on Mahan Drive for a residence check before going to the distribution and then exit towards Ox Hill Road.

City officials reserved 1,200 test kits and some N95 masks that will be shipped direct to public housing residents, senior housing facilities and agencies serving people with reduced mobility, said fire chief and emergency management director, Tracy Montoya.

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