Dan Haar: CT’s COVID testing strategy confusing but it works
Connecticut has followed its nation-leading performance in controlling COVID-19 in June with even better numbers in July.
That’s partly the result of an ad campaign that includes geo-coded messages telling people in cities to get tested, and mobile vehicles that pull up to churches in urban neighborhoods, ready to swab the deep nasal passages of faithful residents.
The result, whatever the reason: The number of people in hospitals with COVID-19 dropped below 100 on June 29, kept falling and shows no sign of rising again, as other states sweat out their hospital ICU capacity.
Total new cases have leveled off at about 2 per day for every 100,000 Connecticut residents for the last four weeks. By comparison, states with 10 per 100,000 per day land on the quarantine list and there are many of those.
And Connecticut’s decline has happened despite sharply higher testing numbers — 72,000 per week this month, up from 46,000 in June — as a result of the marketing efforts.
Florida? A sickly 9,942 new cases a day this month, or 46 per day for every 100,000 Sunshine State residents. And to think they reopened Disney World, and still hope to mount a Republican National Convention. Thanks but no thanks, boss, I’ll pass on that plum politics assignment.
There are lots of reasons for Connecticut’s recent success including the obvious fact that we were hit brutally hard early on. Florida just passed us in total deaths on Tuesday and it’s six times bigger than Connecticut. So we can hold the smugness.
Still, Connecticut’s marketing campaign, formally launched in a very low-key way in late June and early July, has been a factor. Dubbed Connecticut Respect, it’s a broad push at a cost so far of $1.5 million including production and media buys.
Broad, that is, when it comes to mask-wearing and social distancing, with video ads and other mass outreach as Gov. Ned Lamont mounts a daily fight against complacency.
When it comes to testing, the state’s outreach narrows sharply. That’s where it gets tricky and where the state’s message has been a bit confusing.
In Bridgeport on June 26, for example, Lamont, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Mayor Joe Ganim and others converged at a mobile testing rig in the parking lot of the Mount Aery Baptist Church. They touted the state’s outreach for testing urban residents, especially Black and Hispanic people whose incidence of the disease has been higher.
That’s one group Lamont wants to be tested in large numbers. Here are the others: Anyone living in congregate housing such as a prison, nursing home or state hospital. Anyone with symptoms, even just a persistent cough or a low-grade fever. Anyone who’s been exposed to a person with COVID-19, such as front-line workers.
That’s it. If you live in the suburbs, feel fine and haven’t been exposed to a known coronavirus carrier, you don’t need to submit to the swab.
If you’ve traveled to a hotspot like Florida, stay home for 14 days after you return. Get a test if and only if you start to feel symptoms or find out the old school pal you stayed with in Sarasota now has COVID.
Trouble is, the strategy doesn’t make clear to everyone whether we should or shouldn’t get a test — it targets those who should, in their separate silos.
It’s working well, Lamont told my colleague Ken Dixon on Wednesday, as the numbers of tests rise and the number of new coronavirus cases falls.
“We’re going to the churches, and we’re paying to put the mobile van in the church parking lot, and having the ministers encourage people why it’s really important to get tested,” the goveror told Dixon. “So we’re doing a lot of unorthodox ways of reaching people, and right now our testing is near the top, according to most of the reports I’ve seen.”
He added, “Can we always do better? Yeah.”
The testing messaging is reaching the right people even if the overall message for many remains muddy. At various times Lamont and others — recently New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — have said everyone should be tested. At other times the tests have been more limited. And the availability of tests rises and falls depending on conditions here and across the nation.
Why not a broad, statewide campaign aimed at letting everyone know who should and who should not head on down to the testing site, sign a form and lean back? The answer is money and market psychology.
“In terms of where we’re investing our scarce marketing budget, we’re really focusing on trying to reach those people that are in the high risk categories that should be tested,” sad Josh Geballe, the state’s chief operating officer. “The message of singling someone out and saying ‘We don’t want you to be tested’ could be easily misinterpreted.”
Besides, he said, the testing sites aren’t reporting a huge number of the wrong people getting tested. State data shows that the testing rates in the largest majority-minority cites, chiefly Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven, are among the highest in the state, all well above the state median of 9,960 tests per 100,000 as of this week.
Lamont, Mounds, Geballe & Co. proclaimed the Connecticut Respect campaign on the afternoon of July 2, as everyone was chomping to start the holiday weekend. The rollout didn’t have a splashy press event. It was just part of the day’s news, after a soft release a week or so before.
Too low-key? Yes. Too much confusion in the general population about who should seek out a COVID test? Yes.
But two caveats. First, Lamont has been clearer and quicker than most govenors with mask and sistancing orders, and minute details for reopening.
And second, it’s hard to knock success.
To punctuate the point: Connecticut’s percentage of tests that come up positive for coronavirus stands at 0.8 percent in July, down from 8.8 percent in May, even though we’re testing more people, even though we’re targeting the tests at people more likely to have the illness.
Florida? After three days of declines on Sunday, the health department there was pleased to announce the ratio was just over 11 percent.
In the end, getting the right people tested matters more than having everyone know the big-picture strategy.
“We’re really focused on the things that are in our control,” Geballe said, “because if we execute well we can increase the odds that we keep a lid on COVID in Connecticut.”