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Gov: State on ‘wrong path’ in COVID fight

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Increases in Rhode Island’s COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations spurred a “wake-up call” from Gov. Gina Raimondo and Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott on Wednesday, with calls for a renewed commitment to mask-wearing and social distancing – and plans for the issuance of new restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.

“I don’t want you to panic … But I do want you to be concerned and alarmed and jolted into making some changes, because we’re on the wrong path,” the governor said during her weekly briefing.

She later added: “These numbers having been ticking up … It’s becoming clear now that it’s a trend, and it’s a trend in the wrong direction, and it’s time to course correct before it becomes a real problem.”

The tone of Wednesday’s briefing at times called back to those held during the earlier stages of the coronavirus crisis, before Rhode Island entered its reopening process.

The latest COVID-19 data update from the Department of Health showed 160 additional positive cases identified among 5,954 tests – a positive rate of 2.7 percent. That figure, which just weeks ago was regularly in the 1 to 2 percent range, has been above 2 percent on several days recently, the governor said.

Eight more Rhode Islanders have died as a result of the virus, bringing the state’s total to 1,147. As of Wednesday, 131 Rhode Islanders were hospitalized due to the virus – a number the governor said has doubled in the last four weeks.

Three recently added metrics in the data update highlighted cause for concern. Rhode Island’s percent positive rate ticked up to 1.6 percent last week from 1.5 percent the week prior. New hospitalizations rose significantly last week, to 106, compared with 67 the week prior. And the number of new cases per 100,000 residents also made an alarming jump, from 89 to 120, over the same time period.

Raimondo said hospital leaders are “getting concerned” about the situation, although she added that hospital beds and ICUs are still “well below” capacity.

As for the cause of the troubling data trends, Raimondo and Alexander-Scott zeroed in on small social gatherings.

A chart shared during the governor’s presentation showed steady, or even declining, case numbers in the college and university, public schools, and congregate care communities, even as the overall trend line has curved upward. She also said restaurants, retail businesses and other places of commerce are “for the most part” not driving the increases, since those settings are controlled.

Instead, Raimondo and Alexander-Scott said case investigations have found it is people becoming “too relaxed” in familiar settings – failing to wear masks and practice social distancing during “small family and friend gatherings” or in workplaces, for example – that has fueled the latest uptick in community spread of the virus.

“Let this be a wake-up call to us, Rhode Island … We’ve all, including me and my family, become a little too relaxed,” Raimondo said.

Alexander-Scott added: “When it’s around people you know, that’s where people are letting their guards down.”

The governor held up Wisconsin – now a national hotspot for COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations – as an example of the circumstances Rhode Island could face in the coming weeks.

She said as of Sept. 10, Wisconsin’s number of new positive cases per 100,000 residents stood at 120, the same as Rhode Island’s figure for last week. Now, Wisconsin’s figure is 290 – and it has seen a 250 percent increase in hospitalizations in the last three weeks.

The governor also said an analysis suggests the causes of Wisconsin’s situation are similar to what is being seen in Rhode Island.

“Wisconsin was seeing small, consistent upticks in percent positive,” she said. “Nothing to worry about, until it was.”

Raimondo additionally made note of a meeting she and Alexander-Scott had last week with Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

Birx, the governor said, sounded a “bit of an alarm bell for New England” as a whole – pointing to similar trends that were seen before surges in the Midwest and South – and urged Rhode Island to step up its testing of asymptomatic people in an effort to proactively identify and thwart the virus’s spread.

For the first time since the announcement of school reopening plans, Raimondo said she planned to hold a second briefing this week, on Thursday. At that time, she said, new restrictions would be announced as part of the state’s response to the latest data – although she sought to reassure Rhode Islanders that the measures will be nowhere near aggressive as what occurred in the spring.

“I’m not going to announce we’re moving back a phase … I’m not going to announce broad changes to clamp down on restaurants and retail and commerce,” she said.

No changes will be made with regard to schools, either, she added.

“If anything, keeping kids in schools is helping us because it’s a structured environment,” she said.

Raimondo at one point said that based on Birx’s recommendation, plans would soon be announced for “mandatory” asymptomatic testing for Rhode Islanders. She later walked that back, acknowledging that “you can’t really” make testing mandatory, but she urged the state’s residents to schedule asymptomatic tests by visiting portal.ri.gov. She also said she will now be tested weekly.

More guidance regarding Halloween was expected to come during Thursday’s briefing. Raimondo did say, however, that “if you have planned a Halloween party, cancel it right now.”

Asked about enforcement of social gathering limits, Raimondo said: “We are not going to send the cops to people’s houses.” She added, however, that “there will be enforcement” when it comes to bars and large parties.

Also on Wednesday, the Rhode Island Commerce Corp. announced “major expansions” to the Restore Rhode Island grant program.

The news was only briefly addressed during Raimondo’s remarks, but according to a press release, the changes will double the program’s maximum grant awards to $30,000 and expand eligibility to nonprofits and private child care facilities.

Also announced were a new Business Adaptation grant program – which will provide awards of up to $50,000 for businesses that “have been significantly impacted because of the pandemic and have been unable to continue their normal operations” – and a partnership with the Rhode Island Foundation to support nonprofit groups working with the state’s most vulnerable populations.

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