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How the Lamont plan to buy thousands of COVID-19 tests fell apart: a ‘mind-blowing’ pandemic odyssey

Hartford Courant logo Hartford Courant 1/2/2022 Christopher Keating, Hartford Courant
At a Thursday evening press conference in East Hartford, Gov. Ned Lamont said the promised shipment of tests from California would not arrive. © Provided by Hartford Courant At a Thursday evening press conference in East Hartford, Gov. Ned Lamont said the promised shipment of tests from California would not arrive.

With coronavirus cases spiking, hospitalizations surging and Connecticut residents waiting as long as four hours for a COVID-19 test, Gov. Ned Lamont was faced with yet another crisis in the nearly two-year old pandemic.

New Year’s Eve was days away and the governor had to find at-home COVID-19 tests. After nearly two years of wheeling and dealing for masks, surgical gloves and all manner of personal protective equipment, the Lamont administration turned to a reliable vendor from throughout the pandemic.

By early last Monday afternoon, Lamont and his top aides had found a stopgap solution: The state would spend $18.5 million in federal money for 3 million at-home rapid tests and 6 million N95 masks, with plans to start handing out the tests last Thursday.

“The demand for tests has outpaced the supply of testing available through our statewide network of about 400 sites,” Lamont said Monday, well aware of the rising tension around testing. “The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is likely to be a period of high transmission, and we have to get 2022 off to a good start by helping residents identify COVID-19 quickly and take those steps to isolate appropriately to curb any further spread.”

Dr. Manisha Juthani, commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, said that the testing, along with vaccination and masking, were critical to help fight off the “current surge of COVID-19 from the omicron variant.”

“We will be distributing two of these — masks and tests — so that our communities can work as quickly as possible to get past this surge,” she said. “Because of the scarcity of these kits, I am asking the residents of our state to please take only the kits that you need for your immediate family so that we can distribute as many as possible to help flatten the omicron curve.”

By Wednesday afternoon, there were promises of crates of tests sitting in Sunnyvale, California, about to be shipped to Bradley International Airport, where members of the Connecticut National Guard were waiting.

The tests from California never arrived, creating a public relations disaster on Thursday. By Friday, the Lamont team — drawing on other contacts and connections — found a new source and more than 400,000 tests were delivered to Connecticut. But the California shipment disaster, which misled scores of municipalities, was another reminder that the pandemic crisis is far from over.

‘Planes were waiting and ready’

Despite the state scrambling to find new tests, Lamont’s critics quickly jumped on the collapse of the California shipment at a moment when seemingly much of the state was trying to line up a COVID-19 test.

House Republican leader Vincent Candelora of North Branford called for an investigation by the state attorney general in order to warn future contractors about misleading the state on important contracts.

“It’s a huge embarrassment. It was the greatest hoax of 2021,” Candelora said. “This needs to be investigated. This is a huge violation of the public trust. … We were being told there were pictures taken of these products being loaded onto the plane. That’s pretty significant and outrageous — and the state of Connecticut should be looking into this. No business should be misleading the state of Connecticut.”

As the shipment unraveled, top Lamont officials were more concerned with finding where the tests were, particularly since municipalities across the state were planning mass distribution of the free tests starting Thursday.

When Juthani heard that the test kits were not arriving — after various contradictory explanations — she was shocked.

“First, we were told the product was in Memphis,” Juthani said in an interview. “Then we were told the product was coming from California. … Now, you’re telling us you’re sending it to us from California and not trucks from Memphis. Now, we’re told the trucks couldn’t be loaded overnight, and so it has to be done in the morning. And then the flights. And then after all that … to come back with it’s not just a delay, it’s not coming. It was mind-blowing in some ways because we had obviously shared a lot of information with people, and a lot of municipalities made plans.”


Video: CT Receives Shipment Of At-Home COVID-19 Tests (CBS New York)

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She added, “I was told the planes were waiting and ready. When you hear that level of detail of a status update and then to find out that we’re not getting them at all was really mind-blowing. I really have no other term to say.”

The other problem was state officials went ahead with the announcement to cities and towns because they were highly confident in the Glastonbury contractor who had handled millions of dollars in state contracts in the past.

“When somebody who you have a long track record with in the state and is a local member of the community, when somebody like that tells you something, you’re more likely to believe it because you know that person has come through for you before,” Juthani said. “If it was a random person, you might have less faith that was true. That’s why it was even more mind-blowing to us that were involved.”

A reliable vendor

Documents disclosed by the state show that the state had an agreement to pay $18.5 million for 1.5 million antigen test kits that had two tests per kit for a total of 3 million individual tests. The “term of contract” started on Dec. 26 and called for the kits to be sent to the state’s commodities warehouse in New Britain.

The state was dealing with Jack Rubenstein CT, LLC of Glastonbury, which had been described by state officials as a reliable vendor that had done millions of dollars in contracts with the state in the past and had connections to provide products during the pandemic. The company is operated by Jeffrey B. Barlow, who did not return messages seeking comment.

Sources in California, who Lamont officials are not identifying, led administration officials to think that everything was under control.

“We know that we were told in no uncertain terms — even with pictures — that the tests were in the plane,” Lamont said at the state’s commodities warehouse in New Britain. “We know that the plane didn’t take off or it didn’t take off and come to Connecticut as was contracted via our purchase order. I have plenty of time to do post-mortems on this thing. In the meantime, I’ve got to get more tests into the state, and that’s my prime focus.”

Days after the deal fell apart, Lamont appeared to be less interested in finger pointing than in moving forward after an embarrassing episode in which mayors, first selectmen, and other local officials quickly geared up to distribute test kits by New Year’s Eve.

“Right now, I want to get more masks here [in New Britain],” he said. “I want to talk to all the providers. I don’t want to be sitting around talking about lawsuits. I want to talk about getting more tests right here.”

Lamont admits that the state was outbid in a fast-moving environment that went outside normal purchasing operations.

“Nothing is standard operating procedure right now‚” Lamont said. “It’s a little bit of the Wild West out there. … I would say everything, going back two years, has been a day late and a dollar short. … But we’re way ahead of 48 other states.”

Long lines, long pandemic

After the embarrassment, the Lamont administration now has a policy of not making announcements until the products have arrived.

“I think we got a little ahead of ourselves, to tell you the truth,” Lamont said. “We all thought the tests were in the plane. We thought ‘Here they come.’ We wanted to give our municipalities a little bit of time for planning. I think in hindsight we probably should have said ‘off the record, you may be able to plan for this, but we can’t announce it yet because I’ve been through this movie before. If you don’t see it, it’s not here yet.’”

On Friday afternoon, after the first replacement shipment of 400,000 tests arrived, Lamont and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal walked up and down a line of hundreds of cars that were waiting for COVID-19 tests in a parking lot at Veterans Memorial Stadium in New Britain. Some drivers rolled down their windows to chat, while others did not.

Tania Rosado of Wolcott chatted with Lamont, who said, “I apologize for your long wait.”

“It’s been three hours,” said Rosado, who was near the front of the line.

A Spanish teacher for the past 19 years who has two children, Rosado said she wished she could have gotten a kit in her hometown instead of driving from Wolcott to New Britain to wait in line.

“I was mad because I could have gone there, and I wouldn’t have come here,” she said. “That would have been much easier. … It’s a mess. It seems very poorly handled — the way the government is handling it.”

Rosado added, “The pandemic — I can’t wait for it to be over.”

Christopher Keating can be reached at ckeating@courant.com.

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