As flu season nears, governor makes vaccination push

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Rhode Island continues to see favorable trends in terms of COVID-19 data, Gov. Gina Raimondo and health officials said Wednesday – but the impending arrival of flu season, along with the potential for a fall or winter coronavirus resurge, raises the prospect of a straining the state’s health care system to the point that hospitals and emergency rooms are “overrun, overwhelmed and overfull.”

That is spurring state leaders to make a plea for Rhode Islanders to obtain flu vaccinations in the weeks ahead, as well as a pledge to make the shots as accessible as possible.

“This flu season, vaccination for the flu is more important than it has ever been … This is truly a life and death situation,” Raimondo said during her weekly COVID-19 briefing Wednesday.

Raimondo said Rhode Island is typically among the leading states nationally in terms of flu vaccination rates, which she put at 55 percent among adults and 75 percent among children on average.

She said the state has ordered an additional 150,000 flu vaccine dosages this year over its usual number – with the ability to obtain more – and that the Department of Health will work with a wide range of community partners, from nonprofits to supermarkets, in an effort to push this year’s vaccination rate as high as possible.

“You will have no excuse not to get a flu shot this year,” she said, adding that the vaccinations will be free regardless of people’s insurance coverage or ability to afford it.

Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said Rhode Island sees roughly 1,000 flu-related inpatient hospitalizations each year. During the 2017-18 flu season, she said, 60 Rhode Islanders died as a result of the flu.

“This is something we all need to take seriously as a state …Year in and year out, the flu vaccine is your best protection against the flu,” she said.

Wednesday’s COVID-19 data update showed 54 new cases identified among 5,185 additional tests, a positive rate of 1 percent. Three more COVID-related deaths were reported, bringing the state’s toll to 1,062, while 82 Rhode Islanders were hospitalized and four were being treated in ICUs.

Raimondo said the state’s positive rate has been consistently running below 2 percent, and on some days 1 percent or less. That, she said, is a “very stable and safe place to be.” Elsewhere during Wednesday’s briefing:

* Raimondo said state inspectors observed “much better” mask-wearing and social distancing compliance among Rhode Islanders over the Labor Day weekend than was seen during the Fourth of July holiday.

State inspectors visited roughly 700 businesses last week, she said, and reported high levels of mask-wearing among employees and customers. Bars and restaurants, she said, have shown marked improvement in terms of distancing requirements.

COVID-19 symptom screenings at businesses, the governor said, continue to be a source of concern. Inspections found only 85 percent of businesses conducting screenings at the door, she said. * Raimondo said the Department of Health has issued new guidelines regarding visitation at nursing homes and assisted living facilities. The changes, she said, were spurred by reports that some facilities were ceasing all visitation based on single new COVID-19 cases.

“The bottom line is that a single positive case is no longer a reason to completely halt visitation at a nursing home or assisted living facility,” she said.

She added: “That doesn’t mean we’re relaxing guidelines to a point that the infection will spread again … The facilities have to have a process in place.” * A list of 12 testing locations for Rhode Island’s K-12 schools will be posted online Friday, Raimondo said, and all of the sites will be operational as classes resume Monday. The dedicated K-12 testing system, she said, will be able to conduct 5,000 tests each day. Rapid testing will also be available for children and teachers who exhibit symptoms partway through the school day. * Alexander-Scott said analysis of the roughly 500 new COVID-19 cases identified between Aug. 26 and Sept. 1 show that “social gatherings continue to be an issue” in terms of transmission of the disease. She also said a number of cases were tied to people going to work while symptomatic or carpooling with colleagues. * The governor also said a new update of the Crush COVID RI mobile app was released on Wednesday. She pitched the update as reducing the strain on phone batteries and providing a new symptom checker tool that can be used for screenings at businesses and schools.

A contest will launch Friday, she said, in which people who download the app and complete the symptom checker for seven consecutive days will be eligible to win a free night’s stay at one of three Providence hotels.

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