Key takeaways from today’s RI COVID-19 briefing

  • 7 more dead, 80 total; 275 new cases
  • Hospitalizations rise to 213 overnight
  • New executive order mandates masks at work
  • App for COVID-19 patients will be opt-in
  • Ban on utility shutoffs extended into May

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Gina Raimondo announced Tuesday that seven more Rhode Islanders have died due to COVID-19, bringing the state’s death toll to 80.

The newly announced fatalities include two people in their 60s, two in their 70s, and three in their 80s. Three of the seven lived in a nursing home — meaning 58 of the 80 deaths statewide have been associated with nursing homes. A fourth lived in a group home.

There were 213 people in the hospital with COVID-19 as of Tuesday, Raimondo said, up from just under 200 on Monday. An additional 275 people have tested positive for coronavirus in the last day.

R.I. Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said she thinks the recent decrease in the daily number of new positive cases is more a product of the Easter holiday and Monday’s severe weather — which closed testing sites — than a sign that infections are becoming less prevalent.

The latest data means 3,251 people have tested positive in Rhode Island since the state reported its first case of COVID-19 on March 1.

Patients need to contact a doctor if they have concerns rather than show up at an office unannounced, according to the Health Department.

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Raimondo has signed a new executive order requiring that as of Saturday most employees must wear masks at work, with exceptions for those who cannot do their jobs with a mask on, such as call-center operators. The governor said she delayed implementation until the weekend to give people a few days to prepare. (Any cloth face covering that masks the nose and mouth will suffice.)

“You have to do this,” the governor said. “You have to do it because it’s going to protect everybody else in Rhode Island.” While acknowledging “it feels strange,” she said wearing a mask will be “the new normal” when parts of the economy begin to reopen.

“For the next year or so, we’re going to be living under a new set of regulations,” Raimondo said. “My goal is: most number of people back to work, fastest, at lowest risk.” Industries that require large groups of people to gather such as restaurants will be the last to reopen, she said.

The R.I. Department of Business Regulation will be doing spot checks to review compliance with the masks order, and while fines are possible, Raimondo urged people to simply follow the new rule rather than look for ways to avoid doing so.

The order also says customer-facing businesses “shall take steps to require customers to wear face coverings, including the posting of such requirement at the entrance of the business.”

The R.I. Commerce Corp. has posted information for employers about masks on its website.

“These coverings are not a replacement of doing the evidence-based and proven social distancing, washing your hands or using hand sanitizer frequently and absolutely staying home when you are sick,” Alexander-Scott added.

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The governor said she is generally pleased with the state’s current level of testing, and said she will keep an eye on the number of positive tests and hospitalizations as she tries to determine when more restrictions can be lifted. She also said the state is “weeks away” from an antibody test that could use someone’s blood to see whether they have already been infected and have immunity.

A day after joining other Northeastern governors to form a council that will work together to decide how to reopen the economy, Raimondo shrugged off President Trump’s suggestion that he rather than the governors will decide when that happens.

“I think the governors made the tough decision to close the economies, and we will be the ones who make the tough decisions of reopening,” she said.

Raimondo said the state’s contact tracing team of nearly 100 people had reached out to roughly 2,800 individuals in the last two weeks who’d had contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. She said as many as 400 to 500 people are sometimes being contacted in a day. Nearly 90% of them are reached within two attempts.

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The state is continuing to develop a new electronic app under a contract with that Raimondo says will survey people every day about their symptoms. Responding to Republican lawmakers who have sent her a letter raising privacy concerns, she acknowledged the validity of those worries and said any app will be an opt-in program.

“We have to be careful to meet the needs of the public health crisis without violating anybody’s civil liberties or civil rights,” she said.

Raimondo acknowledged the frustration of businesses who tried to apply to Goldman Sachs’ new $10 million Rhode Island small-business loan program that was full within hours on Monday, and said she is asking the bank to consider adding more money to the pool. She also noted that Congress is expected to further increase funding soon for the Small Business Administration.

The HealthSource RI special open enrollment period has been extended to April 30, and the R.I. Public Utilities Commission has voted to extend the ban on utility shutoffs until May 8.

The governor’s Wednesday coronavirus briefing will be at 2:30 p.m., 90 minutes later than usual, her office said.