As the numbers of COVID-19 cases continue to climb, Gov. Ned Lamont announced Monday that the state will distribute 3 million at-home COVID-19 tests and 6 million N95 masks.
The first distribution round will consist of 500,000 iHealth kits – each containing two antigen tests for a total of one million tests – that will be designated for the general public. Two million of the tests will go to the state’s public schools as teachers and students return after the holiday break.
“This will help keep our schools open safely,” Lamont said at a news conference. “We see the spread of omicron and we see it hitting young people. So of our 3 million, 2 million will go to K-12 schools. We hope to get it in a week.”
A negative test result on someone with symptoms may require a follow up PCR test, said Public Health Commissioner Dr. Manisha Juthani. But a positive test result wouldn’t require follow up testing, only that people stay isolated at home, she added.
“There is no need to obtain a follow up PCR test,” she said. “This is just another tool to help people know they should get out of circulation.”
Given the highly infectious nature of the omicron variant, Juthani said it is most important to wear any mask both in public spaces and when interacting in close contact with individuals outside of your household, but an N95 mask will provide better protection.
The at-home test does not satisfy the testing requirements for unvaccinated state workers, Lamont said.
State officials decided to procure the rapid at-home tests on Christmas Eve and will allocate the test kits and masks to municipal health departments for distribution. Holiday travel and gatherings, and word about the easily transmissible omicron variant sparked demand for testing that created long lines and wait times for results.
The iHealth kit received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in November and distribution could begin as early as Thursday.
“There will be priority for equity efforts,” said Chief Operating Officer Joshua Geballe. “We are allocating some of that supply to populations that might have harder access to testing, food distribution centers, houses of worship, homeless centers and congregate housing.”
The allocation is separate from any federal efforts to distribute at-home rapid tests and puts the state at the head of the line, Geballe said. Massachusetts is also preparing to distribute testing kits.
On Dec. 21, the White House announced plans to provide a half-billion at-home COVID antigen tests free of charge for people in the U.S. who want them. The free home testing kits will be available in January 2022 via a federal government website that will allow you to request tests for home delivery.
Lamont asked that people not call their local health departments until a local distribution plan is finalized. Meriden’s Director of Health and Human Services Lea Crown said Monday she was just learning about the test kits and will post a distribution plan on the city’s website as soon as feasible.
“We understand that desperation, we are still in rolling out phase,” Lamont said. “Every community is going to be slightly different. Every municipality, the number of people, the different considerations. In terms of management, it’s going to be up to our local partners. Have patience.”
Juthani told reporters that despite increases in numbers of cases, hospitalizations remain low for vaccinated individuals with break-through cases making up 20 to 30 percent.
The three million test kits can also skew the daily positivity rate because results might not be reported into the data system. Juthani said she doesn’t expect the state’s positivity rate to go down in the near future. It ticked up to over 10 percent Monday, the highest ever.
The state’s stockpile of six million N95 masks will also be distributed to schools and public health departments to give to the general public. The N95 masks are more effective against virus spread than cloth masks and can be worn by the general public for an entire day. Hospital workers are encouraged to dispose of them more frequently, Juthani said.
The state was able to procure the at-home tests and the additional masks through the resources it cultivated nearly two years ago when it was scrambling for personal protective equipment, Geballe said.
“This is coming out of our stockpile,” Lamont said. “We’re not relying on what’s coming out of Washington. There is nothing more important than wearing that mask. This is part of how we continue to manage our way through omicron and any other variants.”
Lamont is not considering a mask mandate at this time and pointed to therapeutic treatments from Pfizer and Merck to treat COVID in its early stages at home.
“This can keep you out of the hospital,” Lamont said. “Testing and therapeutics will be key to manage schools, and keep the economy open.”
The distribution of kits will be overseen by the state Department of Public Health, Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, and Connecticut National Guard.