The number of coronavirus cases in Rhode Island jumped from three to five on Tuesday, health officials announced, while organizations across various segments of the community have canceled events and taken other steps aimed at curbing the spread of the disease.
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization for the first time called the coronavirus a pandemic.
On Monday, Gov. Gina Raimondo declared a state of emergency and outlined new steps aimed at protecting the elderly and supporting businesses and workers affected by the virus. She called for calm but acknowledged the likelihood of the continued spread of coronavirus in the state.
“This isn’t a time for panic. The risk to the average Rhode Islander remains low. However, it’s a time for action…We fully expect that there will be more cases. We are seeing that in other parts of the world and we are seeing that in other states,” Raimondo said during a Monday media briefing.
She added later: “Our response here in Rhode Island has been swift and aggressive and that’s because we want to keep everybody safe.”
The emergency declaration cites the “dangers to health and life posed by COVID-19” – the formal name for the virus – and directs the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency to activate its emergency operations center and related response plans. It additionally authorizes the Rhode Island National Guard to activate its personnel to assist in the response if necessary.
“It gives us more tools in our toolbox to take the necessary steps,” the governor said.
During a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Raimondo additionally announced that she is calling on Rhode Island residents not to attend or organize events of more than 250 people for the next two weeks. The state’s top goal at this point, she said, is containment of COVID-19’s spread locally.
“To do this is an exercise of judgment and balance … because I understand that people have to live their lives and business has to continue. However, we only have one chance to contain this,” she said.
“As a state, we have the unique opportunity to have a positive impact by implementing these steps now prior to the onset of widespread community transmission,” Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said during the press conference. “That’s why we’re being so aggressive in our approach … If we take these steps now, we can do work to limit the spread of COVID-19.”
The state’s fourth and fifth cases of COVID-19 were announced Tuesday based on testing at the Department of Health’s State Laboratories.
Both of the new cases – one a woman in her 50s, the other a woman in her 30s – are considered “presumptive positives” pending confirmation through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a protocol that is being followed nationwide.
According to a statement, the woman in her 50s had recently visited Egypt and is believed to have contracted the virus during her travel. The source of the infection in the woman in her 30s – identified as a health care worked at a hospital in Rhode Island – is current unknown and being investigated. Both of the women are said to be recovering at home.
“As with all COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island, extensive contact tracing is being done for these cases,” a press release from the Department of Health reads. “All people who have had direct, face-to-face contact with these people are being instructed to self-quarantine.”
As of Wednesday, 94 people in Rhode Island had tested negative for coronavirus and eight test results were still pending. Approximately 260 people were in self-quarantine due to their direct contact with someone who has contracted COVID-19.
The first two Rhode Island cases were in a man in his 40s and a teenage girl who took part in a trip to Europe organized through Saint Raphael Academy in Pawtucket.
The third case, announced March 6, involves a woman in her 60s who “had direct, face-to-face contact with a person with confirmed COVID-19 in New York in late February,” according to a press release.
The woman is said to be recovering at home with mild symptoms. She is employed at Smithfield Avenue Nursery School in Smithfield, and state officials said contact tracing for children and adults at the facility is being conducted.
“Initial studies of COVID-19 indicate that the virus does not affect children as severely as adults,” the release states.
Aside from the increase in the official tally of cases, incidents of confirmed or feared COVID-19 exposure have occurred locally.
CVS on Tuesday announced that an employee at its corporate office in Lincoln has tested positive for COVID-19. That employee is a resident of Massachusetts.
Citizens Bank also announced Tuesday that a contractor who was providing training to a “small number” of employees at its Johnston campus has tested positive for the virus, and those workers – who have not exhibited any symptoms to this point – have been asked to self-quarantine.
Additionally on Tuesday, a passenger on a flight that arrived at T.F. Green Airport was taken to the hospital after exhibiting flu-like symptoms during the flight.
“It is not unusual for passengers to become ill on flights and require assistance from health care professionals, however given the nature of this situation, responding personnel employed health protocols recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Rhode Island Department of Health intended to assist the individual and prevent exposure to communicable diseases,” a statement from the Rhode Island Airport Corp. reads.
The seriousness of the coronavirus situation has also escalated quickly in neighboring Massachusetts, which saw its number of positive cases jump to 92 as of Tuesday. Gov. Charlie Baker has also declared an emergency in the Bay State.
COVID-19 is part of a family of viruses that cause respiratory illness. Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath and can range in severity.
In addition to the emergency declaration, Raimondo announced Monday that the state’s Department of Labor and Training and Department of Health have taken a “series of new COVID-19 preparedness and response measures to support employers, employees and nursing homes throughout the state.”
Those include waiving the seven-day waiting period requirement for Unemployment Insurance claims and claims filed through the WorkShare short-term compensation program; waiving the seven-day out-of-work requirement for Temporary Disability Insurance and Temporary Caregiver Insurance; and waiving medical certification requirements for people under quarantine due to potential exposure to COVID-19.
Raimondo said the state’s Department of Labor and Training has set up a hotline and email address – 462-2020 and email@example.com – to provide guidance to employers and employees who might be affected by the virus.
“I’m fully aware that what I’m asking businesses in Rhode Island isn’t easy, isn’t convenient … [but] based upon everything that we know, it is in everybody’s long-term best interest that if they are sick or in quarantine they stay at home, and in the end it will benefit all of us,” the governor said.
She added: “The stock market tumbled today, the economy is slowing down … We have arrows in our quiver to take action. Don’t panic. Act. Be proactive. And that includes doing the right thing – protecting employees, particularly low-wage, hourly employees who deserve the opportunity to take care of their health and stay home if they’re sick.”
Additionally, new visitation rules have been imposed for nursing homes. According to a statement from the governor’s office, the restrictions place limits on visitation hours; bar visitors under the age of 18; prohibit residents from leaving for reasons other than medical appointments; and require active screening of “visitors, staff vendors, entertainers, and anyone else who enters for illness and recent travel history.”
“In special circumstances, exceptions can be made from this policy, given the importance of mental and emotional health to the overall wellness of older adults,” the statement reads. “Families should work with nursing home administrators regarding special circumstances. RIDOH is partnering with Rhode Island’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman, Kathy Heren, in supporting nursing homes.”
Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, the state’s health director, addressed the nursing home visitation restrictions during Monday’s briefing.
“We held a big call with nursing home leadership on Friday and again this afternoon, and I want to credit the nursing home leadership who have been responsive, understand what’s at stake and doing what they can to make sure their residents are protected. It is absolutely critical, critical, that people who are sick not go into nursing homes right now,” she said.
She added: “This is the current approach today. It is urgent and critical to be able to protect our seniors and nursing homes … The approach we’re taking may sound a little severe to some people, but this illness is much more dangerous to older adults.”
Raimondo said: “It is crystal clear this is a virus that has the greatest impact on the elderly, particularly the elderly with underlying health conditions. I want to make special pleas to all Rhode Islanders who have elderly and sick family members. We recognize children are doing relatively better with this disease. The greatest risk is to elderly who have underlying lung or heart or health issues and we have to do everything we can to protect them.”
In recent days especially, the COVID-19 situation has prompted institutions and organizations throughout the Ocean State to cancel events and institute new policies.
On Monday, Lifespan – which includes Rhode Island Hospital –announced it has suspended adult visitation at its hospitals and enacted other restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of what is known officially as COVID-19.
“Effective immediately, no visitors will be allowed in adult units at our Lifespan hospitals,” Lifespan’s statement reads. “Hasbro Children’s Hospital and Bradley Hospital will have modified policies to allow for accompaniment by one parent. Newport Hospital maternity services will allow for a birthing partner only.”
Additional exceptions will be made based on various circumstances, according to Lifespan, such as end-of-life care or cases requiring the presence of a medical guardian or decision-maker.
“We have decided after great deliberation to take this step in these highly unusual circumstances to protect our patients and our workforce,” Timothy J. Babineau, president and CEO of Lifespan,” said in the statement. “We understand this is a great hardship to both patients and families, but we know that older and sicker people are most vulnerable to this novel coronavirus, and after careful evaluation of the evolving risks of transmission, we felt it was the most prudent thing to do.”
Lifespan has since been joined by Care New England and South County Hospital in placing restrictions on visitation.
Care New England will not allow visitors for adult patients at Kent Hospital, Women & Infants Hospital and Butler Hospital.
“Obstetric Inpatients will be allowed one designated support person during their stay, and a pre-designated doula while in labor, if applicable,” a statement from Care New England reads. “NICU patients will be allowed only two designated support persons during their stay. Emergency Department patients will be allowed only one accompanying adult and that person’s duration of stay in patient areas will be limited.”
Additionally, “only persons essential to patient mobility, and/or comprehension” will be allowed to accompany patients to diagnostic imaging, laboratory and other service areas.
“We understand this policy will represent a significant hardship for both patients and families,” the statement reads. “We do not take this lightly. However, we believe that at this point in time – with the presently evolving risks of transmission in the community – this is the best way to protect the vulnerable patients who have trusted us with their care.”
Lifespan and Care New England also told WPRI on Wednesday that they are working to open drive-thru COVID-19 screening tents – one at Kent Hospital and another near the Department of Health’s building in Providence.
South County Hospital’s new visitor guidelines prohibits visitors for staff or patients if they are under the age of 19 or display symptoms including cough, fever, chills, runny nose, stuffy nose and sore throat.
“If you need a same day sick visit, call your primary care provider’s office first. Please do not come to our offices for a sick day visit without making an appointment first … All patients with respiratory symptoms should wear a face mask and use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer upon entering our offices,” a statement from the hospital reads.
Elsewhere, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island announced March 6 it will cover the cost of COVID-19 tests and waive co-pays and cost-shares for diagnostic testing related to the virus.
This policy change covers testing performed at an in-network lab and applies to commercial (fully insured), Medicare Advantage and direct pay members who meet the testing guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),” a statement reads.
CVS on Monday announced it will waive charges for home delivery of prescriptions and take other steps aimed at easing the refill process.
Nonprofit group Family Service of Rhode Island on Monday issued a call seeking support for its “Be Safe” program, which is designed to provide low-income children, families and seniors with essential items needed to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The agency hopes to provide kits containing items like antibacterial soap, disinfecting wipes and alcohol-based hand sanitizers to at least 200 of the families it serves.
Those wishing to contribue may text “BESAFE” to 44321 or visit familyserviceri.org.
“We work in schools and communities across Rhode Island, and in recent weeks so many families have asked how they can get help to buy the products recommended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” Margaret Holland McDuff, head of Family Service of Rhode Island, said in a press release. “So many of our neighbors are already struggling to make ends meet – and they raised that these extra costs for recommended products are out of reach for them. In addition, we’re working in countless homes across Rhode Island with babies, seniors and others who are high risk and have very limited incomes. We want to make sure they have the right products to be safe.”
Local colleges and universities have also taken measures aimed at containing the spread of the virus.
On Tuesday, the Community College of Rhode Island announced that it has expanded the suspension of all college-sponsored international travel to include domestic travel.
The college has also canceled all events with 100 or more people through April 7. That includes events held on campus by outside community groups.
“We are closely monitoring this evolving situation and will continue to follow guidance by RIDOH to evaluate future events scheduled on our campuses,” CCRI marketing and communications director Amy Kempe wrote in an email message to the college community.
CCRI previously advised that all faculty, staff and students who have visited China, Iran, Italy, South Korea and Japan in the last two weeks are being required to notify the college and remain at home until they have been symptom-free for 14 days.
At Roger Williams University, 15 students and one faculty member recently entered self-quarantine due to their attendance at a February Conservative Political Action Conference that has been linked to a case of the virus.
On Tuesday, RWU announced it has extended spring break by one week and is “enacting plans to transition to online and alternate modes of instruction that will begin on March 23 and continue for as long as necessary this semester.” On Wednesday, the university announced they have developed a website for up-to-date information about the virus.
“While there are no known cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) within our campus community, we are taking these steps to limit exposure to the virus among our community, their families, and our neighbors,” the university said in a statement.
At Brown University, three students recently entered self-quarantine while being tested for COVID-19 based on their having “traveled to a venue outside of Rhode Island where they may have been exposed to the virus.”
Brown has suspended all university-sponsored domestic and international travel and canceled all events with 100 or more attendees through April 13. It is additionally mulling a switch to remote instruction for the duration of the spring semester.
The University of Rhode Island has also suspended university-sponsored travel to both domestic and international locations. On Wednesday afternoon, URI announced it has additionally canceled classes through March 20, with classes to be held remotely between March 23 and at least April 3. Additionally, all campus events with expected attendance of more than 100 people through April has been canceled or postponed.
During Wednesday’s press conference, Raimondo said the state is not recommending the closure of K-12 schools at this point.
“There’s a few reasons that schools are in a different category,” she said. “First, we know that children are faring relatively better with this disease. Secondly, closing school has significant implications for the families and the entire community.”
Raimondo said the Rhode Island Department of Education will soon be providing additional guidance to schools regarding COVID-19.
COVID-19 is increasingly affecting various aspects of daily life.
Nationally, major music festivals have been postponed and concert tours have been canceled or pushed back. Sporting events, too – including the Ivy League’s basketball tournament – have been canceled, while college and professional athletic leagues are reportedly making plans for games held in empty stadiums and arenas.
Virus concerns prompted an unprecedented response from two major political figures on Tuesday. Following Democratic presidential primary votes in Michigan, Missouri, Washington State and other states, both former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders canceled planned rallies.
More locally, on Twitter Tuesday, Rhode Island Senate President Dominick Ruggerio announced that the General Assembly is reminding residents they can submit written testimony on legislation in lieu of providing in-person testimony at the State House.
“Constituents who wish to take every precaution against the spread of COVID-19 by avoiding public gatherings may submit testimony” via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, he wrote.
In Newport, the City Council voted Tuesday to allow the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade to go on as scheduled this Saturday, according to the Newport Daily News. On Wednesday, however, the paper reports that Raimondo has recommended the event be postponed or canceled.
West Warwick’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, meanwhile, appeared poised to go on as planned as of Wednesday afternoon. The event is scheduled for Sunday afternoon.
Local business and community organizations are also taking steps related to COVID-19.
In an email to patrons, Tony Estrella and Amy Gravell of Warwick’s Gamm Theatre wrote that “all performances, classes, and events … are proceeding as planned.” The venue is making hand sanitizer available and “regularly disinfecting” surfaces in its lobby and restrooms, as well as railings and armrests.
“The program books we are distributing are new. Should we need to recycle books later in the run, we will be sure to use the ones that have not been touched for at least 72 hours,” the email reads. “Additionally, we have posted the QR code that allows you to capture the program on your phone so you may read it on your personal device.”
In an email to its patrons, Providence’s Trinity Rep offered similar guidance and said it is taking identical steps in terms of cleaning.
“All performances, classes, and events at Trinity Rep are, to-date, proceeding as planned,” the venue’s message reads. “We are monitoring the evolving situation closely and will provide updates via email, our website, and social media should our plans change.”
Mentor Rhode Island said its program is continuing, although it respects individual decisions in light of the COVID-19 situation.
“Right now, mentoring is continuing. The custodial staff at the schools are doing an amazing job at keeping surfaces clean and there are currently no known cases in the schools where we mentor. Please know that we honor and respect any decisions you make based on your own needs,” a message from the organization’s leadership team reads.
Jo-Anne Schofield, president and CEO, said Wednesday the organization’s major fundraiser, Dancing With the Stars of Mentoring, April 9 at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet is still several weeks out. At this time there is no plan to cancel or reschedule the event.
In a Facebook post Tuesday, Cranston’s Nardolillo Funeral Home said it is “strongly discouraging visitors” who exhibit the three primary symptoms of COVID-19 – dry cough, fever and shortness of breath.
“Thank you for understanding as we work to ensure a safe environment for our families and workforce,” the post reads.
According to the World Health Organization’s March 11 update, more than 118,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed across 113 countries. As has been the case to this point, the vast majority of cases – approximately 81,000 – are in China, where the outbreak originated. South Korea, Italy, Iran, France, Germany, Spain and Japan have also experienced significant outbreaks.
In the United States, the CDC’s March 11 update placed the total number of cases at 938 across 39 states, including the District of Columbia, with 29 reported deaths.
The number of total cases includes both “presumptive positives” and those that have been confirmed by the CDC. The agency advises that data from individual states – which are testing and reporting their own cases – may be more current than its own figures. As of Wednesday morning, CBS News and other national media outlets put the total number of U.S. cases at more than 1,000 and the number of deaths at more than 30.
WHO places the total number of global deaths from COVID-19 at 3,162 in China and more than 1,100 elsewhere across the globe.
In terms of preventing the spread of the virus, Rhode Islanders are being urged to get a flu shot if they have not yet done so; wash their hands regularly using warm water and soap, or alcohol-based hand gel; keep surfaces such as beside tables and bathroom counters clean; cough or sneeze into a tissue or one’s elbow; avoid touching one’s eyes, nose or mouth; and remain at home if experiencing symptoms.
In a Monday statement, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed called the emergency declaration a “needed, proactive step that will help ensure the state can expedite the purchasing of medical equipment and public health supplies.”
“I support the governor’s decision,” Reed said. “The declaration isn’t cause for alarm. It activates legal mechanisms allowing the state to better coordinate the response and get more medical resources swiftly and effectively in the event that they are needed. Our highest priority is the safety and well-being of all citizens and this declaration will ensure the governor has all the tools available to protect people and public health.”
In the wake of Raimondo’s emergency declaration, Adanjesus Marin, coordinator of the advocacy group Raise the Bar on Resident Care, said the COVID-19 situation illustrates the need to address staffing at the state’s nursing homes.
“The need for better staffing in Rhode Island’s nursing homes is underscored during a public health crisis such as the coronavirus outbreak as there is a direct correlation between staffing levels and infection control in nursing homes,” Marin said in a statement. “The Rhode Island Department of Health’s actions to contain the coronavirus outbreak are important and necessary to protect the health and welfare of nursing home residents. Moving forward, it is vital that Rhode Island increases staffing levels so residents get the quality care they deserve.”
In his statement, Reed said he is “urging the Trump
Administration to be more proactive in helping Rhode Island and other states increase their testing capacity.”
“In order to stop the spread of the virus, public health officials must have a firm grasp of how prevalent the disease is, how fast it is spreading, and where,” he said. “The lack of testing kits has hampered that effort and it needs to be addressed. We must all work together to protect people, especially the most vulnerable among us.”
At Warwick Veterans Memorial Middle School, Principal David Tober recently issued a message to faculty and parents after a parent notified him that his daughter – who is Asian – had been blamed by another student for the spread of COVID-19. The virus originated in China, and reports of similar incidents have surfaced nationwide.
Tober’s message reads: “With the Coronavirus scare very front and center, we not only need to take the necessary precautions to keep ourselves healthy and safe, we must also look at its other impacts. At Warwick Veterans we have some students being racially insensitive to other students who are Asian American. Comments about them having the Coronavirus or responsible for the Coronavirus because of their race and appearance are occurring. This is obviously unacceptable! These situations are being addressed specifically. If faculty/staff hear any of this going on they will immediately address it and refer the students responsible to administration. I’m also asking parents to create an awareness at home of this very judgmental behavior by talking about its dangerousness and negative impact to your children. Let’s make this message a strong, teachable one.”
Tober on Monday said no other similar incidents have been reported since the message was issued.