Connecticut’s COVID death count continues to rise, even as public attention fades

Photo of Alex Putterman
Clay Harris receives a COVID-19 test outside the Salt Lake County Health Department.

Clay Harris receives a COVID-19 test outside the Salt Lake County Health Department.

Rick Bowmer / Associated Press

As many Connecticut residents, and some public officials, increasingly behave as though COVID-19 is no longer a significant threat, the state’s weekly death toll continues to suggest otherwise.

Connecticut on Thursday reported 28 additional COVID-linked deaths over the past week, bringing its total to 11,130 over the full pandemic.

Though deaths are nowhere near as common as they have been at previous points during the past two and a half years, the recent totals are far from trivial. According to state data, Connecticut has lost 1,965 people to COVID-19 this year and 189 since the start of June alone.

Meanwhile, the state currently has 352 people hospitalized with COVID-19, most at a time since late May.

These numbers arrive as public officials in Connecticut increasingly downplay the state’s relatively high levels of COVID-19 transmission — nearly 5,000 reported cases in the past week, not counting those that are recorded on at-home tests — by noting that risk of hospitalization and death is relatively low. This logic has led the state to remove essentially all pandemic-related restrictions and to pare back the public reporting of COVID data.

To Dr. Ulysses Wu, chief epidemiologist at Hartford HealthCare, the prevailing narrative understates the level of serious illness in Connecticut currently.

“I don’t agree with it at all,” Wu said. “Our hospitalizations are still high, and deaths are still high.”

At least for now, COVID-19 continues to cause significantly more death than other respiratory diseases to which it is sometimes compared. Whereas Connecticut recorded 28 COVID-linked deaths in the past week, it reported only 12 flu deaths during the entire 2021-22 season. Even in a bad flu season, the state typically records fewer than 100 deaths, a toll that COVID-19 surpassed in the month of June alone.

While Wu cautioned that comparisons between flu data and COVID data are not apples-to-apples due to the prevalence of COVID testing, Johns Hopkins University estimates that COVID’s mortality rate remains as much as 10 times higher than that of the flu.

Additionally, experts note the risk of long COVID, which has afflicted nearly 1 in 13 American adults, according to a June survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Still, as the pandemic has dragged on, public officials have softened their messaging around COVID-19, describing viral spread as inevitable. This week, for example, the state loosened its guidance for school districts, clearing students with minor cold symptoms to attend school as long as they tests negative for COVID-19 first.

In explaining that decision, public health commissioner Dr. Manisha Juthani described the pandemic as largely under control.

“What we’ve learned over these last couple of years is that we have the trifecta when it comes to an infection disease,” Juthani said. “We have diagnosis, we have treatment and we have prevention.”

For many experts, this stage of the pandemic is about finding the right balance between letting the virus dictate key aspects of life and forgetting about it altogether. To Wu, who still encourages masking indoors in public, public sentiment seems to have swung too far toward the latter approach.

“We can live with COVID,” Wu said. “But we’re not really living with COVID, we’re ignoring COVID at this point.”

COVID-19 cases in Connecticut have risen steadily over the past six weeks, corresponding with the arrival of the BA.5 subvariant. As of Thursday, the state had recorded 4,798 cases over the past week (a total experts say is almost certainly a dramatic under-count), with a test positivity rate of 11.8 percent.

As of last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classified New Haven County as having “high” COVID-19 transmission, leading Juthani to urge masking for all people there, while Fairfield and New London Counties were not far off.

With cases high and deaths still substantial, Wu cautions against confusing numbers that are better than they were with numbers that are where society might like them to be.

“We have descended from Everest, but we’re still at base camp,” he said. “Base camp is pretty high up there still.”