What Gov. Gina Raimondo recently described as Rhode Island’s “wrong path” in the fight against COVID-19 has led to what she calls a “bad place” – and “everything’s on the table,” including a step backward in the state’s reopening process, to stem the virus’s new surge.
During her weekly briefing on Wednesday, the governor said she would return to The Vets stage in Providence on Friday to announce new restrictions as case counts and hospitalizations continue to mount.
“It’s within our control to change the trajectory … We have to start doing things differently if we’re going to change the trend,” she said, later adding: “It’s crystal clear to me that if I don’t impose new restrictions, we will be opening field hospitals.”
The latest COVID-19 data update from the Rhode Island Department of Health paints a darkening picture of the state’s standing as the pandemic wears on.
Another 425 positive cases have been identified among 13,397 additional tests, representing a positive rate of 3.2 percent. Four more Rhode Islanders have died after battling the disease, bringing the overall toll to 1,192.
Three key weekly metrics provided by the state starkly portray the troubling trends. The percent positive rate rose to 2.9 percent last week from 2 percent the week prior and is now “the highest it’s been in over two months,” Raimondo said. New hospitalizations reached 139 last week, up from 103 the week prior. And the state’s number of new cases per 100,000 people jumped to 242, from 150, over the same timeframe.
Hospitalization figures continue to be among the most troubling, and Raimondo on Wednesday said current projections are “alarming.”
As of Wednesday, 136 Rhode Islanders were hospitalized in connection with the virus, with 18 being treated in ICUs. Raimondo said hospitalizations have roughly doubled in recent weeks, and that the current pace would see the state’s existing hospital capacity exceeded within four to five weeks.
“Rhode Island’s not alone,” she said. “All over the world, all over the country, this is what you’re seeing.”
At present, Raimondo said, the state’s hospitals have 300 beds designated for COVID-19 patients. Maximum surge plans at those facilities would provide for a total of 600 beds.
Once those are filled, the state would turn to its remaining field hospital location at the former Citizens Bank building on Sockanosset Cross Road in Cranston, which has 325 beds. In response to a question from the media, Raimondo said the state does have the ability to bring two other field hospitals, at the Rhode Island Convention Center and Quonset Business Park, back online, even though plans to decommission those sites were approved late last month.
“Yes, I’m prepared for the worst,” she said.
In terms of new restrictions, Raimondo declined to provide any details of what she’s planning on Wednesday, saying she continues to seek the most targeted approach possible. She said she is “not convinced” that a return to “blunt instrument” restrictions of phase two – which ended June 30 – is “necessarily the right thing,” but that it is “getting to be time to reimpose some restrictions.”
“We’re nearing our own metrics to move back to phase two,” she said. “On the trajectory that we’re on, that could happen in a week or two.”
Raimondo and Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott spent a significant portion of their remarks urging Rhode Islanders to adjust their personal behavior in light of the rising numbers. Promoting mask-wearing in all settings outside one’s home was again a central focus.
The governor said it is “very clear” from the data that the latest increases are being driven by “casual gatherings with family and friends in settings where our guards are down.” She asked Rhode Islanders to identify a “close circle” of people with whom they will be in “close contact” – defined as 6 feet or closer for more than 15 minutes – for the next couple of weeks.
“We’re all starting to spend time with too many people … These are the things that we just don’t have the luxury to be doing now for the next couple of weeks,” she said.
Alexander-Scott added: “We are continuing to see very disturbing trends in our data … We need to take the steps that the governor described, and we need to take them now.”
The health director also urged employers to let employees work from home when possible, noting that office settings in particular have increasingly been found as a point of virus spread through recent case investigations.
“If you are in a decision-making capacity in a business, consider letting people work remotely,” she said.
A return to full distance learning in the state’s K-12 school system does not appear to be among the new restrictions under consideration.
Raimondo on Wednesday said the state is “not seeing significant spread in schools, or for that matter in controlled environments.” She said as of Wednesday, approximately 48,500 Rhode Island students were engaged in some form of in-person learning, with another 49,7000 learning virtually. The “case prevalence rate” for both groups of children was .13 percent last week, she said, calling the figure “extremely low.”
Since the reopening of schools on Sept. 14, Raimondo said there have been 363 COVID-19 cases identified among the in-person learning community and 312 among distance learners.
“Schools are not super spreaders,” she said, arguing there is “really no data to suggest” students are safer learning at home than in school.
* Raimondo said the Department of Health plans to hire 100 new case investigators to further ramp-up the state’s contact tracing system. Currently, she said, the state has a team of 300 contact tracers, including 80 dedicated to the K-12 school system. One-hundred of the contact tracers have been hired since the end of September, she said, and 50 were brought aboard in the last week alone.
“I don’t want you to think we are standing still,” she said.
The new positions will be full-time with some night and weekend hours, Raimondo said, and will last “at least the next sixth months.” Prior customer service experience of some kind is being sought among applicants, who can find more information at health.ri.gov/covidjobs.
Raimondo also made a plea for Rhode Islanders to be patient and courteous with contact tracers, calling the “level of aggressive” directed toward some of the workers “not OK.”
“It’s very upsetting. It’s not the Rhode Island way. I know we’re better than that,” she said. * Alexander-Scott briefly addressed the state’s drug overdose crisis, which she said is “worse than it’s ever been.” After a steady declined from a peak in 2016, she said, Rhode Island is “now on a path to exceed our 2016 total by more than 25 percent.”
The pandemic has played a role in the overdose trend, the healthdirector said, but other factors include the presence of fentanyl in other drugs and counterfeit pills as well as the use of multiple drugs at the same time.
She highlighted the BHLink hotline for mental health and substance abuse issues, which can be reached at 401-414-LINK (5465), and reminded Rhode Islanders of the state’s “Good Samaritan” law and the Safe Stations available at several fire houses.