Editor's note: This story appears on our websites as part of a new partnership between Beacon Communications and East Bay Newspapers to share coverage of the COVID-19 crisis.
Rhode Islanders are now being encouraged by the state to wear cloth-based face coverings in public, Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the R.I. Department of Health, said Friday at Gov. Gina Raimondo’s daily briefing on the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.
These are different than medical masks, Alexander-Scott said. “People should not be purchasing or hoarding medical-grade masks … which are in short supply. Instead, we are encouraging people to wear cloth-based coverings.”
The coverings, which can be sewn by hand or made out of a T-shirt or other cloth material, should be secured to the head with ties or straps and covering the mouth and nose, she said.
“The primary role of the cloth-based covering is to reduce the release of infectious particles in the air when someone sniffs, coughs or sneezes. Being able to cover yourself helps protect other people from being exposed,” she said.
However, the coverings should not act as a substitute for the governor’s previous order on staying home unless it’s absolutely necessary to leave for work or to buy food. Nor does it mean one can congregate in groups of more than five, or go anywhere if they feel sick. Everyone should also be washing their hands frequently, she said.
“Just because you have a cloth-based covering, doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to go out with symptoms,” Alexander-Scott said.
The cloth-based coverings should be washed frequently using hot water and a hot dryer. She advised people to keep them in a separate bag or bin before being laundered, and to wash their hands immediately after using one.
Two more deaths
Raimondo and Alexander-Scott reported there have been two more deaths linked to the coronavirus, bringing the total in Rhode Island to 14, since Thursday’s briefing. There have been 54 new cases (711 total), and 72 people with the virus are hospitalized.
One of the deaths was a nursing home resident at Golden Crest Nursing Centre in North Providence, which has 65 cases of COVID-19, Dr. Scott said. There have been five fatalities associated with Golden Crest and two with Oak Hill Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing in Pawtucket, the latter of which has had 60 positive cases of coronavirus between residents and staff, she said. Overall, 12 nursing homes in Rhode Island have at least one case.
The health department and nursing homes are taking many “aggressive measures” in trying to contain the virus. Residents suspected of having COVID-19 are being moved to private rooms, and only one staff member — tasked with multiple jobs — may enter those rooms, Alexander-Scott said. Visitors are still not allowed in nursing homes.
“We know there are many more people than 711 who have the coronavirus,” Raimondo said, noting that most people with symptoms have not yet been tested. “We are in a rapid-spread phase of the virus.”
More tests available
However, Rhode Island now has the capacity for 1,000 tests per day, the governor said, so they’re not limited to only health care workers and first responders.
“Now the message is different,” Raimondo said. “If you feel like you need to be tested, call your primary healthcare provider. The more we test, the better off we’ll all be.”
She cautioned, however, that Rhode Island is still reliant on out-of-state labs. “It could be two, three days to get your results back,” she said.
The state is also still at the mercy of the federal government, she said. During a call with President Trump and other White House officials on Monday, she said, each state was promised 15 rapid-testing diagnostic machines.
“We have yet to see that,” Raimondo said.
Alexander-Scott said the symptoms for COVID-19 range significantly. They include the chills, coughing, shortness of breath, muscle aches, runny nose, headache, vomiting, and diarrhea. ”Sometimes these symptoms occur in isolation, sometimes they occur without a fever,” she said.
More hospital beds
“We’re working hard on making sure we have enough hospital beds for the surge that really hits,” the governor said, pointing to how quickly New York City ran out of hospital beds and their corresponding equipment. “We are fortunate we have time now over the next few weeks to ready ourselves for the surge.”
The National Guard and Army Corps of Engineers have been evaluating potential buildings that could be used to set up makeshift hospitals, she said. The initial locations that have been settled on are the R.I. Convention Center in Providence, the former Citizens Bank building in Cranston and the vacant Lowe’s building in Quonset.
“We feel these three sites alone will give us an additional 1,000 hospital beds. It’s a Herculean effort to set up over 1,000 beds in a convention center or a former Lowe’s warehouse,” said the governor, who also thanked local hospitals for expanding the number of patients for which they care. “They’re doing great work under difficult circumstances.”
Another push for volunteers
Raimondo made another plea for volunteers to help out with health care during the crisis.
“We’re getting the beds, we’re getting the medicine, we’re getting the ventilators, we’re getting the equipment. We need people,” she said. “If you are a retired nurse, doctor, physical therapist, CNA, social worker, behaviorial therapist, any healthcare worker with any healthcare experience, if you’re retired or working only part-time right now … we need to call you up.”
She urged everyone who can help out to visit riresponds.org to sign up.
Poor grade on social distancing
Again, the governor said many Rhode Islanders are not doing enough to contain the spread of the disease through social distancing, and are not complying with her earlier stay-at-home order. Too many people are crowding checkout lines at grocery stores, or joining other groups outside or in social situations, she said.
“Go out quickly and occasionally, once a week, to the grocery store — alone and not with your own family. The same thing goes for the pharmacy,” Raimondo said. If one must go to work in an office, they should come back and quarantine themselves until the next day, she said.
And, no one who feels sick should leave their home under any circumstances, she said. “Even if you have the sniffles, stay home.”
The reports she’s receiving back up her concerns, she said.
“There’s publicly available data that says Rhode Islanders are less compliant with social distancing than our neighbors in Massachusetts” and most other parts of the country, she said. “The average number of miles that Rhode Islanders are traveling a day is more than the other states. That means we’re not staying home enough.”
Although the state is preparing for a big surge in COVID-19 cases, it would not be ready if it hit today, she said.
“We don’t have enough ventilators to keep everybody safe if the surge hits (now). We don’t have enough hospital beds, we don’t have enough doctors and nurses to take care of people.”
Breaking the rules on social distancing is also “making it practically impossible for me to get the economy back open,” she said.
The governor had bad news for working parents who depend on child care services.
“Unfortunately today, I have to announce we’re continuing to suspend child care licenses through the month of April. It pains me to do that,” said the governor, noting she’s a working mother herself. “We just haven’t found a solution that is safe. We’re not giving up. It’s possible next week I’ll have another announcement. But so that you can plan, I’m telling you now.”
She urged those who have serious child care needs to visit care.com and search for baby-sitters, some of whom are volunteers who don’t charge.
Earlier this week, the governor announced the online food delivery service, ridelivers.com.
“So far, it’s going incredibly well. It is, however, overwhelmed. One day, there were 40,000 requests for delivery of meals,” she said.
Some people are reporting to her that it takes two or three days to get their deliveries, said Raimondo, who urged people to use the service only when absolutely necessary.
“If you are young and healthy, or you have somebody in your family who can go to the grocery store, then do that,” she said.
The governor announced that the SBA payroll protection loan program, part of the federal stimulus response to COVID-19, is now up and running.
“If you are a small business in Rhode Island and you are struggling, I want you to, as quickly as you can, reach out to your banker … and go ahead and file your application for the SBA payroll protection program,” she said, adding there are many guidelines, but the state is working on ways to streamline the system. If you have questions, call 401/521-HELP, she said.
The state is already seeing a rise in the number of adults and children who are struggling with mental illness, and things will get worse as people continue to be out of work, she said.
The governor announced a referral service for adults: Call 401/414-LINK, or visit www.BHLink.org. For referrals for children, Kids’ Link is a hotline set up by Lifespan; call 855/543-5465.
The governor also announced that $5 million in COVID-19 behavioral health funding, dedicated to nonprofits focused on mental and behavioral health, will be available April 6.