Work continues to expand the state’s quarantine and isolation system for those diagnosed or potentially exposed to COVID-19, Gov. Gina Raimondo said during her Wednesday briefing, while a new data portal has been rolled out to provide Rhode Islanders with a streamlined resource regarding the scope of the virus’ spread and toll to date.
“I have my eye on that prize and making sure that we can do it safely,” the governor said, referring to the easing of social distancing mandates and the reopening of the economy.
Reiterating that a stay-at-home order remains in effect through May 8, she added: “If we hang tough together, we’ll all be safer for it … The less you leave your house, the safer we’ll all be.”
Seven more Rhode Islanders have died as a result of COVID-19, the governor announced Wednesday, bringing the total to 87. Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said six of those seven people were nursing home residents. Four were in their 80s, while two were in 90s and one was older than 100.
During a subsequent conference call with reporters, Alexander-Scott said 66 of state’s COVID-19 deaths have been nursing-home related, with another three tied to other congregant setting.
A total of 3,529 Rhode Islanders have now tested positive for the disease, with 278 new cases announced on Wednesday. To date, 22,238 of the 25,897 people tested have been found to be negative for the virus.
The number of Rhode Islanders hospitalized due to COVID-19 rose again Wednesday, to 229. Of those patients, 54 were in ICUs and 44 were intubated and on ventilators. To date, 168 people have been discharged from Rhode Island’s hospitals after treatment for the disease.
The governor also said that as of Wednesday, more than 6,000 Rhode Islanders were in self-quarantine or isolation due to testing positive or being identified as a close contact of someone diagnosed with the virus. The “vast majority,” she said, are “safely in their homes.”
The Rhode Island Department of Health has for several weeks provided daily COVID-19 data updates through a press release and its website. Wednesday’s briefing was the first to feature a new data portal, found at health.ri.gov/data/covid-19, with a consolidated and improved interface.
Raimondo said the new portal provides “much better, more accessible and more granular” information.
“From the beginning I’ve said facts, not frenzy, and we’re trying to do our part to make sure you have those facts,” she said.
The governor also said that on Thursday, she planned to provide additional information regarding the state’s COVID-19 modeling for the weeks ahead – although she again expressed reluctance to do so, given the limited and variable data involved in making the projections.
“We are beginning to flatten the curve, but we’re definitely not on the downswing,” she said.
Quarantine and isolation system
Raimondo spoke at length regarding the role that an enhanced approach to quarantine and isolation will play in reopening the state’s economy – and she said a working group of approximately 60 state employees, led by Rose Jones of the Office of Health Aging, has made significant progress on that front.
“They’ve built an entire system from scratch,” she said, contrasting the “more pinpointed, focused” approach involving rapid quarantine and isolation capability with the “blunt instrument” of extreme social distancing measures such as restaurant and business closures..
Jones’ working group has addressed all of the needs related with quarantine and isolation, Raimondo said, from securing space to establishing grocery deliveries and arranging for check-ins.
Raimondo said the system in place currently has the capability to deliver “tens of thousand of meals per day” and make “thousands of grocery deliveries per day.” Meals on Wheels in particular, she said, made 32,000 home deliveries in the last month.
Additionally, the state’s senior centers and schools are providing a combined 20,000 meals each day. She said the University of Rhode Island’s dining services is partnering with senior centers to enhance that capacity, and more than 100 volunteers have signed up for an initiative called Project Hello, which provides daily check-ins for seniors.
In terms of quarantine and isolation housing, Raimondo said the Wyndham hotel in Warwick has more than 200 beds available for those who are homeless or housing insecure. To date, 50 people have been housed through that facility.
Raimondo said efforts are being made to secure college and university dormitory space that would allow health care workers, first responders and others on the front lines of the fight against the virus to have a no-cost housing alternative. Many of those workers, she said, are apprehensive of exposing their families to the virus.
The governor also highlighted a new online resource, RIHavens.com, which connects those in need of a safe space to quarantine with hotel rooms at “significantly reduced prices.” She said rooms are currently available for as little as $25 a night, and she indicated she is working to provide additional no-cost options – like the dormitories – through the service.
Order on masks
Raimondo on Tuesday announced a new executive order intended to clarify the previous guidance that Rhode Islanders should wear cloth-based nose and mouth coverings in public – a practice officials say will not prevent infection but can slow the spread of the virus through respiratory droplets.
The new order requires employees at a range of businesses, including those considered to be “customer-facing,” to wear face coverings in the workplace. The order will take effect Saturday, which the governor said will allow employers time to prepare.
Businesses will be required to provide face coverings for employees, and the Department of Business Regulation will be conducting “unannounced spot checks” to monitor compliance, the governor said.
Raimondo also said masks will likely be part of the “new normal” moving forward – along with teleconferencing and other social distancing techniques for workers – even when a gradual reopening of the economy begins.
“You have to do it because it’s going to protect everybody else in Rhode Island,” she said.
Alexander-Scott also addressed the face coverings mandate, saying the use of the coverings does not eliminate the need to comply with other social distancing orders.
“You should not be using a cloth-based covering as an excuse to go out into the community with symptoms,” she said.
Testing and contact tracing
While outdoor COVID-19 testing sites across the state were closed as a result of Monday’s heavy rain and strong winds, Raimondo on Tuesday said the state is now able to conduct more than 2,000 tests a day – a figure she previously said places Rhode Island third in the nation on a per capita basis, and which she said Tuesday likely meets the state’s needs.
“The testing, numbers per day, is in a great place … We’re about where we need to be,” she said.
She added, however, that “there’s more to do” in terms of bringing testing access to “hard-to-reach populations,” including those without easy transportation access or for whom there is a language barrier. She said discussions regarding how to address that issue remain ongoing.
The governor also said serological testing capability, which determines whether COVID-19 antibodies are present, is likely “weeks away.”
On Wednesday, she said a new fast-track testing option has been made available for nursing home workers through the CVS testing site at Twin River Casino in Lincoln. Additional fast-track testing for front-line workers is being developed, she said.
In terms of the state’s contact tracing system for those who have tested positive for the virus, Raimondo on Tuesday said a team of approximately 100 Department of Health employees is devoted exclusively to the task of interviewing patients and determining close contacts who need to be reached for self-quarantine instructions. She said approximately 2,800 had been contacted in the previous 14 days, and on some days as many as 400 or 500 people have been reached.
Raimondo said three-quarters of all contacts are successfully reached on the first attempt, and that rises to about 90 percent on the second attempt.
She said work continues on a mobile app that would allow for additional monitoring as part of the contact tracing process - although in a new turn, while responding to concerns from Republican lawmakers over privacy issues, she said the app would be incorporated on an “opt-in” basis.
“Look, I think they’re valid concerns … We’re never going to force anybody to do this,” she said, noting that the state is using new guidance from the federal Department of Health and Human Services as it develops the app and new approach.
Elsewhere during the governor’s Tuesday and Wednesday briefings:
*Raimondo on Tuesday announced that the state’s Public Utilities Commission has extended a prohibition on utility shut-offs or collections reports for nonpayment through May 8.
She also again noted that with courts closed to non-essential business, eviction proceedings will not move forward until at least May 17.
She added, however: “If you are in a position to be able to pay your bills, please pay your bills … This is just the time to do the right thing, for all of us.”
* Raimondo on Tuesday announced that a special health insurance enrollment period through HealthSource RI has been extended until April 30. She also noted that anyone who loses employer-based insurance or has a reduction in income can enroll for coverage during a special 60-day window from the date of that change.
* The governor on Wednesday acknowledged the “really tough decisions” being made in health care settings due to the need to preserve personal protective equipment, or PPE. She praised front-line workers for their “courage and bravery,” and said the state is working continuously to build and maintain supply chains – even as it continues to grapple with a challenging and competitive marketplace.
“Let me be crystal clear. That is not satisfactory … It is a fight. It is continually a global, daily fight out there, and we’re out there and we’re doing it,” she said.
* The governor on Tuesday said there have been continued reports of people showing up at health care facilities without appointments, and that a language barrier is often involved in those cases. She again said Rhode Islanders must call ahead before visiting a provider, and directed people who are experiencing symptoms to seek attention through one of the roughly 20 respiratory clinics set up across the state. A list of those clinics, along with contact information, can be found at health.ri.gov.
* Raimondo on Tuesday spoke about the new partnership she has entered into with the governors of nearby states to coordinate the reopening of the economy. She took part in a joint conference call with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other members of the partnership on Monday following her daily briefing.
“This will not involve any obligation for the state,” she said. “I think of it as a working group … so we can coordinate our approaches to reopening the economy. I will always do what I think is right for Rhode Island.”
She added: “It makes sense that we coordinate and collaborate and learn from one another … none of us has done this before.”
* A new, $10 million loan program for small businesses in the state, established in partnership with Goldman Sachs, exhausted its available funds without hours of its announcement on Monday. Raimondo on Tuesday said she is lobbying the investment firm for additional funding and exploring other avenues of providing assistance to businesses, but she had no formal announcements Tuesday.
* Raimondo on Wednesday highlighted a new initiative, called COVID Connectors, organized by 19-year-old Providence resident Kaya Suner and the Rhode Island Medical Society. The initiative is seeking donations of mobile devices such as cell phones, tablets and laptops to allow for greater connectivity between patients being treated in medical settings and their loved ones. The initiative can be found online at COVIDconnectors.org.
* Asked what summer might look like in Rhode Island, Raimondo said she is hopeful there will be a “new way” to utilize the state’s parks and beaches. But she added: “We are still going to be under some restrictions this summer. There’s no way around that.”