Rhode Island has moved rapidly up the curve, and the state’s public beaches and parks are being ordered closed in the latest step meant to curb the spread of COVID-19.
But the new developments are not all negative, as the state was set on Thursday to reach its long-stated goal of being able to conduct 1,000 tests for the virus each day.
“This is going to get much harder before it gets easier … We’re going to be as ready as we can. We clearly have community spread and we’re in a rapid phase of the virus,” Gov. Gina Raimondo said during her daily briefing Tuesday.
She added: “If you’re wondering what you can do, what are you supposed to be doing? You’re supposed to be buckling down like you never have before.”
A combined 163 new cases of the virus and six additional deaths were announced during the Tuesday and Wednesday briefings, bringing the totals to 566 and 10, respectively, as of Wednesday afternoon. The total number of cases was revised slightly Tuesday after six of the new cases announced Monday were attributed to other states upon additional investigation.
On Tuesday, 59 people were hospitalized as a result of the virus – a “significant and serious jump,” the governor said, from Monday’s total of 41. That figure stood at 60 on Wednesday, and it was noted that some patients have returned home.
The six new deaths – four of which were announced Tuesday, and two on Wednesday – include one person in their 50s, one in their 60s, one in their 80s, and three in their 70s.
On Tuesday, Department of Health Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said there have been three nursing home deaths – two at Golden Crest Nursing Centre in North Providence and one at Oak Hill Health and Rehabilitation in Pawtucket. Those facilities have also experienced “groups of cases,” she said.
One isolated case has been identified at another nursing home, Alexander-Scott said, although that facility is not being identified due to privacy considerations.
She also said while older people and those with underlying health conditions are at the greatest risk, younger people have been hospitalized due to the virus.
“It is impacting folks across the age [divide],” she said.
On Wednesday, Dr. James McDonald, medical director for the department of health, said there had been no new nursing home deaths since Tuesday’s update.
During the Q&A portion of Tuesday’s event, the governor was asked about a University of Washington study that shows Rhode Island’s COVID-19 crisis peaking around April 19 and leading to as many as 259 deaths by August.
Raimondo said the administration is aware of that study and “our model is a little different,” currently showing the peak as being “further out but also higher.” She acknowledged, however, that she views the University of Washington study as “directionally correct” and “probably in the ballpark.”
“Having said that, we’re still working the model,” she said, noting that additional data is needed – and that widespread compliance with social distancing guidelines can still affect the ultimate outcome.
On Wednesday, she said she intends to unveil more details regarding the state’s projections next week.
“There will be a surge. It will be a steep increase. I’m going to be reporting numbers that’s not going to make anyone comfortable … The single most important variable in all of these models, and I’ve looked at them all, is the level of compliance with social distancing,” she said.
Beaches, parks closed; new requests
Raimondo on Tuesday announced that as of Friday, April 3, state parks and beaches will be ordered closed.
It is the latest in a series of significant steps aimed at limiting social contact and curbing large gatherings – and it is one the governor said she is taking reluctantly and as a result of continued noncompliance with state mandates.
“I wish I didn’t have to do it, but this past weekend Colt State Park, Goddard Park, Lincoln Woods, the public beaches were packed,” she said. “They were packed with people closely congregated. And that has to end. It should have already ended.”
She added: “It doesn’t mean you can’t go for a walk. It means they are closed. You can’t park your car there, you can’t congregate there, until further notice.”
The governor also noted that state campground openings, which would typically be happening now, have been postponed until at least May 1.
Raimondo again had strong words for people who are still violating social distancing mandates and gathering in large groups. Currently, gatherings of more than five people are prohibited.
“I honestly don’t understand why you would still be doing that,” she said. “You’re risking your life, your neighbors’ lives, and you’re hurting Rhode Island. So stop it.”
Raimondo on Tuesday also gave Rhode Islanders a “really important assignment” – keeping a daily log of places they have been and people with whom they have been in contact. Having that record, she said, would “help us enormously” in terms of contact tracing for anyone who becomes ill.
“Help us out and keep everyone safe … Keep a log and hopefully you won’t need it, but if you do, you’ll be glad you have it,” she said.
Disaster declaration approved
Raimondo announced another bit of “good news” during Tuesday’s briefing – that President Donald Trump has approved the state’s federal disaster declaration, a move she said paves the way for reimbursement from FEMA for expenses incurred by the state, cities and towns, and school districts during the response to the crisis.
The declaration will be retroactively effective to Jan. 20 and will cover costs such as cleaning, personal protective equipment and other expenses. The governor thanked the members of the state’s congressional delegation for their assistance.
“It’s a great thing for Rhode Island. It will give us the resources that we need to fight the virus and to fight the crisis,” she said.
Health care workers sought
Raimondo made a new call for volunteer health care workers to reach out to the state through the website RIresponds.org.
The governor said approximately 400 people responded within a day when she unveiled the volunteer push last week. Despite that response, the state remains in “desperate need of trained medical and behavioral health professionals.”
“We need you. We can’t get through this crisis without you. We will run out of people,” she said. “Doctors, nurses, CNEs, physician assistants, therapists, social workers – if you’re out there, if you’re retired, if you’re only working part time, if you have some extra time on your hands because your practice has change, I’m calling you up. I’m asking you, please, to respond.”
Alexander-Scott also announced a new initiative through which nursing students who have completed at least one semester of their studies may obtain a 90-day certified nursing assistant license to immediately help with staffing needs. She said additional guidance was being sent to the state’s nursing schools.
Alexander-Scott additionally as of Tuesday, all health care workers are being told to wear surgical masks. Doing so, she said, will help prevent any worker who may be in the early stages of illness and completely or largely asymptomatic from spreading the virus.
Testing ramping up
Raimondo and Alexander-Scott said COVID-19 testing to this point has continued to focus on three key groups – hospitalized patients, health care workers and EMS personnel, and those in congregant settings such as nursing homes.
That is being expanded, however, as the number of daily tests to 1,000, up from the current level of 500 to 600 each day.
Mobile testing sites went live at the state’s public colleges and universities starting Wednesday morning. Those facilities remain open only to people who have been approved for a test through a health care provider. In all, the governor said, there are six swabbing sites and six labs processing samples across the state.
Alexander-Scott on Tuesday said the expanded testing facilities will allow for testing of symptomatic people in additional groups – those who are over the age of 65, those with underlying medical conditions and “critical infrastructure workers such as police officers and firefighters.”
During Wednesday’s briefing, Raimondo said reaching the 1,000 daily test threshold will also allow for testing through referrals from primary care physicians.
“Primary care providers, start sending us folks,” she said – reiterating that people cannot be tested by arriving at a site and much receive approval ahead of time.
Currently, people referred to a testing site can expect to wait three or four days for a result. Raimondo said Wednesday the next step is to provide for same-day testing, which she hopes will be available soon.
Raimondo said expanding testing capacity – along with enhanced contact tracing ability and quarantine protocols – will be essential in terms of allowing for the easing of social distancing measures.
To that end, she said Wednesday that the state working to develop the “best, most sophisticated, most accurate, most real-time” contact tracing system possible. She said additional details will be forthcoming, although mobile phones will be utilized.
Raimondo also said a dedicated team has been working to secure spaces to be used for quarantining as testing ramps up. That includes space for members of particularly at-risk segments of the community, including those living in congregant facilities like nursing homes and the homeless.
The governor also said a dedicated team is working to identify and prepare additional space for COVID-19 treatment.
“I get asked all the time, ‘Are we going to have extra hospital beds?’ Yes, we will. We will need them … We’re going to have to set up what we call field hospitals,” she said.
Elsewhere during the Tuesday and Wednesday briefings:
Raimondo said large orders of medical supplies – including over 5 million N95 masks, 3 million surgical masks and hundreds of thousands of gloves and gowns have been placed and are en route to Rhode Island. She praised Steve King, managing director of the Quonset Development Corp., for leading Rhode Island’s medical supply chain effort.
She added, however, that the current environment – in which states are competing against one another, as well as the federal government and governments abroad – for supplies has proven “very opaque, to say the least.”
“It’s not here yet. Every day’s a battle. Sometimes when the order is made, the federal government comes in and cancels it … Governors are seeing this in every state, so we’re just going to do what we can do,” she said.
Raimondo said Rhode Island Superior Court is currently working to roll out a program that will assist businesses that have experienced difficult paying creditors as a result of the economic effects of the current crisis. The program will allow for court-supervised, incremental repayment of creditors rather than the typical liquidation of assets to pay creditors. Additional information will be available at courts.ri.gov.
“I want to thank the courts for getting in there and supervising this,” the governor said.
A new service, found online at RIdelivers.com, has been established to provide food delivery to Rhode Islanders in quarantine. Roch’s Fresh Foods has partnered with the state on the initiative and will make most of the deliveries she said.
A new short-term bridge loan program for Rhode Island businesses with 10 or fewer employees has been established, with additional information available by calling 521-HELP. The program is starting with $2 million in funding – $1 million each from BankNewport and the Rhode Island Commerce Corp. – and will provide loans in the “thousands of dollars, not tens of thousands of dollars,” Raimondo said.
The governor said while the state will be able to assist businesses once the funding from the federal stimulus package arrives, that process will take several weeks at least. The new loan program is designed to provide immediate aid for businesses pursuing loans through the federal Small Business Administration.
“The burden on small businesses is just extreme … It’s heartbreaking, it’s heart-wrenching, it’s really tough,” she said.
Raimondo reiterated that the state’s court system remains closed for nonessential business through April 17 – meaning any eviction proceedings cannot proceed until at least that date. She said she plans to announce additional guidance regarding evictions in the coming days. The same holds true for utility shutoffs, which have been barred through at least April 15.
The governor added, however: “If you’re lucky enough to be in a position where you can pay your bills, pay your taxes and pay your rent, do the right thing.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Roch's Fresh Foods.