Wallingford reflects on COVID one year into pandemic

WALLINGFORD — One year ago today, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, making it the first pandemic to be caused by a coronavirus.

At the time, there were more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries — though more than 90 percent of documented cases were in just four countries — and only 4,291 people had died worldwide, according to a statement by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom.

Gov. Ned Lamont had announced three days earlier that the state Department of Public Health had confirmed the first presumptive positive case of COVID-19 involving a Connecticut resident.

This was after two cases were reported involving Danbury Hospital and Bridgeport Hospital personnel who were residents of New York state.

Although COVID-19 first appeared in Connecticut in a hospital setting, it was long-term care facilities and nursing homes that saw the first waves of transmission and rise in deaths attributed to the virus.

Masonicare CEO JP Venoit was in Florida, visiting a group of Masonicare-affiliated individuals at the Florida Nutmegger Reunion, when he realized that COVID-19 could impact his senior care continuum, Venoit recalled in an interview this week.

“I got an alert that the virus had come to the United States,” he said, “and they were talking about Washington state, and they brought up a nursing home, and the mood of that dinner, for me, went from very jovial to, ‘OK, this is real.’”

On Feb. 29, 2020, the first COVID-19 death in the United States was reported at EvergreenHealth Medical Center in Kirkland, Washington. The Life Care Center in Kirkland soon experienced an outbreak, and Seattle became an early epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the virus cropped up closer to home in New York City, lockdowns of nursing homes soon followed, as did mass purchases of personal protective equipment (PPE) — and face masks became ubiquitous.

“This year we’ve gone through over 300,000 masks,” Venoit said. “And if I remember correctly, I think we had 1,800 masks when this started. I think we’re up to a half a million masks right now in storage, but I think we had 1,800 masks when we started this foray into the virus.”

Safety guidance was developed but changed quickly, as more information came out about the virus.

“You would be in a meeting,” Venoit said, “and we would say, ‘well this is how we’re going to do it,’ and by the time you left the meeting, the Department of Public Health or CDC would have new guidance on it. So you just went through an hour where you were like, ‘Oh, we’re going to do this,’ and then, boom, it changed.”

Venoit said Masonicare leadership responded by constantly pivoting and spent hours in task force meetings.

“You could tell who your leaders were during the crisis,” he said, “and that’s probably one of the proudest things, in my opinion.”

First fatality

The toll that COVID-19 has had on society and the economy is difficult to measure, even a year after the pandemic officially began. There’s the immense loss of human life from COVID-19 deaths, but also the loss of other things we won’t get back — time in school, businesses that have shuttered, celebrations of life events.

Wallingford Health Director Stephen Civitelli said earlier this week that he recalls he was first contacted about COVID-19 by the state health department on a Sunday evening, regarding a traveler returning from China.

“At that time, we were instructed that our department was required to monitor individuals returning from areas of concern for signs and symptoms for a set time period,” Civitelli said via email.

Since then, Wallingford has had 3,653 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 165 fatalities, and has conducted 110,078 tests, according to Civitelli’s report Tuesday to the Town Council. The town has somewhat leveled off, reporting around 25-27 cases per day over a 14-day rolling average over the last two weeks.

Wallingford’s first confirmed death of a resident from complications of COVID-19 was Audrey Carretta, an 86-year-old retired elementary school teacher. There were only 10 reported cases in town at that time.

The public school district responded by adapting to distance learning models, especially when staff shortages forced some schools to temporarily close.

Two mass vaccination clinics, held Friday and Sunday at the Toyota Oakdale Theatre in partnership with Hartford HealthCare, provided about 1,000 child care providers and school personnel with their first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

“We’re going to try, again totally based on allocation from the state, try and meet the remaining number of folks that still are looking for a vaccine … in the next week or so,” Civitelli said Tuesday.

Business impact

Town Economic Development Coordinator Tim Ryan said that he was used to responding to disruptions like power outages or blizzards that slow life down for a day or even a week, but COVID-19 has so far disrupted life for a year.

Nevertheless, town government responded by remaining open and operating.

“We never did leave Town Hall, in terms of doing our jobs,” Ryan said Wednesday, “and I think that’s proven to be very beneficial. As the mayor (William W. Dickinson Jr.) has said, when things get tough, people rely on government even more so.”

Ryan said that when COVID-19 struck, “the uncertainty was deafening.”

“It had all of us pausing and measuring every step we took, every surface we touched,” he said.

The impact on businesses and the workforce was profound, presenting different challenges but also showing the resilience of human beings, he said.

One of those business owners impacted was Vinny Iannuzzi of Vinny’s Deli, 567 Center St.

Iannuzzi said Wednesday he initially lost 90 percent of his staff in the first week after COVID-19 hit as people got scared and quit, but has since hired and retrained a new set of staff, giving job opportunities to high school kids who don’t have to be in the classroom.

There were no shortages of his signature A1 roast beef, the only type he has ever served, but the price tripled, he said.

While the deli remained open and maintained its same hours, the catering side of the business “dropped off a cliff,” he said, as events dried up.

“I heard it on a Thursday or a Friday, when Gov. Lamont was going to close the restaurants down,” he said. “Once they shut down bars and restaurants, all I know is our catering business hit the floor.”

Overall, Iannuzzi said he considers himself lucky — not only was he able to stay open, but the bridge construction in front of his business that had plagued him for years finally ended.

‘I can’t just sit home’

Iannuzzi also responded to community needs, offering toilet paper and hand sanitizer at cost when both were in short supply. He also donated food to places like MidState Medical Center.

“This pandemic really showed people who the essential workers really were,” he said. “There was no pro sports and we all survived … but the food chain and the medical chain, those were all that was important then.”

At Master’s Manna food pantry, the work of providing basic necessities to vulnerable people went on, but operations had to be adjusted.

Manager Susan Heald said that when COVID-19 started taking hold in Connecticut, she had to take a week off and reassess, taking into consideration the exposure risk.

“After a week I said, ‘I can’t just sit home,’” she said, “so I came back to work and we made some changes.”

The pantry shopping setup was moved to the front parking lot, so just volunteers were allowed inside the building, until the weather got cold.

Clothing and housewares were no longer offered, and the dining center and kitchen were shut down.

“The craziest part was just watching on TV the president (Donald Trump) saying, ‘we got this, give us two weeks and it’ll be gone,’ and here we are a year later,” she said.

LTakores@record-journal.com203-317-2212Twitter: @LCTakores

"I think we're up to a half a million masks right now in storage, but I think we had 1,800 masks when we started this foray into the virus."

-JP Venoit
"After a week I said, ‘I can’t just sit home.' So I came back to work and we made some changes."

-Susan Heald

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