Key takeaways from Friday’s COVID-19 briefing:

  • 13 more deaths, 10 at nursing homes
  • State creating 30-day supply stockpile
  • Hospitals get ‘crisis standards of care’ guidance
  • More on reopening economy coming next week

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Thirteen more people have died, bringing Rhode Island to a total of 118 COVID-19 related deaths, as state leaders continue to ready the health care system while keeping an eye on reopening the economy.

Total confirmed coronavirus cases rose to 4,177, an increase of 366 since Thursday, and more than 30,000 tests have now been conducted in the state, according to health officials.

Gov. Gina Raimondo warned Friday that there’s still a lot of health and economic suffering ahead, but offered some glimmer of hope that the economy could start reopening sometime next month. Her current stay-at-home order expires May 8.

“Every day feels like a Monday and that’s tough,” Raimondo said during her daily briefing. “I hope soon we will turn the corner.”

As of Friday afternoon, 252 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized including 62 in the ICU and 43 on ventilators. The people who died ranged in age from their 50s to older than 100.

Ten of the 13 people were residents of congregate care settings such as nursing homes, which have been pummeled by the disease. More than 80% of the 118 people to die so far from COVID-19 in Rhode Island have been residents of nursing homes.

“Rhode Island is facing extremely difficult challenges in our nursing homes,” said Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott. “Every day you hear the evidence.”

To that end, Alexander-Scott announced a string of new protocols going into place to try and help safeguard older Rhode Islanders and their caregivers against future exposure to the disease.

The state is creating so-called “strike teams” designed to identify and provide resources to nursing homes most in-need. To boost staffing, the state has licensed 960 more people to work in congregate care settings, according to the director.

Rhode Island continues to try and attract more health care workers from other states by fast-tracking the licensing process, and Alexander-Scott said the state has waived training requirements for certified nursing assistants whose licenses may have lapsed in the last two years.

More than 3,300 health care professionals so far have joined state efforts through, Raimondo added.

Additionally, she reminded the industry that 200 testing spots per day have been set aside for health care workers and staff at nursing homes. Those tests are available at the CVS Health testing site at the Twin River Casino parking lot in Lincoln.

Alexander-Scott had announced Thursday the state would dedicate Oak Hill Health & Rehabilitation Center in Pawtucket as a center for recovering nursing home residents who have been discharged from the hospital. Increased testing and retesting residents and caregivers will help public health officials know where resources are most needed, she added.

The effort to protect nursing home residents and workers will likely be welcomed, as Rhode Island has a higher percentage of COVID-19 deaths in those facilities than neighboring states.

“We will continue to assess across the nursing home community what the risk is and what changes needed to be made,” she said.

Raimondo said the state is getting closer to having its three makeshift hospitals ready in Providence, Cranston and North Kingstown, which would add upwards of 1,000 beds to the state’s current health care system. She argued against thinking of them as “makeshift hospitals,” insisting they are being designed to provide the same quality of care offered at typical hospitals.

The new, temporary care facilities are being set up at the R.I. Convention Center, a former bank office building in Cranston and a former Lowe’s department store in Quonset.

In another sign the state still sees the worst is yet to come, Alexander-Scott said the state has shared “crisis standards of care” with the hospitals, which will help health care providers make potential life-and-death decisions about who does and does not receive potentially limited supplies during a time of crisis. Similar guidelines already exist in harder-hit places, such as New York City.

In a conference call with reporters, Alexander-Scott declined to provided specifics, although she said the state would share the guidance publicly.

The director said her team looked to other states for guidance in developing the rules, including Massachusetts, where health care providers are told to focus on maximizing the number of life-years saved rather than saving the most lives.

For example, if a pregnant woman in her 20s and a 80-year-old with underlying health conditions both need a ventilator during a crisis and there’s only one available, health care providers are encouraged to intubate the expectant mother.

“Patients who do not have serious comorbid illness are given priority over those who have illnesses that limit their life expectancy,” according to the Massachusetts guidance.

Alexander-Scott said she hopes this guidance will never have to be followed in Rhode Island, but the state is projecting hospitalizations to spike in the coming weeks to anywhere between 2,250 and 4,300 from April 27 to May 3, according to state-based modeling unveiled Thursday.

Hospitalizations currently total 252.

“We’re hopeful that we will never have to activate those crisis levels of care,” Alexander-Scott said.

In an attempt to provide more financial support to front-line workers who become sick, Raimondo announced that Beacon Mutual Insurance Co. will start presumptuously approving workers’ compensation claims filed by caregivers who test positive for COVID-19. State Rep. Anastasia Williams, D-Providence, has been calling for such a move.

Beacon Mutual insures more than 12,000 Rhode Island businesses, and the new benefit joins a suite of unemployment programs offered through the state, including Unemployment Insurance, Temporary Caregivers Insurance and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

“This is an additional benefit,” Raimondo said, noting that the state’s Department of Labor and Training has been overwhelmed with different unemployment claims.

Raimondo also said the state has received more than 1.2 million surgical masks, 1.5 million gloves and 10,000 face shields within the last week. The state team focused on securing personal protective equipment — headed by Steven King of Quonset Development Corp. — has ordered another 10 million surgical masks, 1 million N95 masks, tens of millions of gloves, hundreds of thousands of gowns and face shields, she added.

The goal is to create a 30-day, Rhode Island-specific stockpile of PPE for now and the future, Raimondo said, adding that the effort is no small task due to ferocious competition as governments across the world scramble to secure a limited global supply.

“That means that even when we hit the peak and start to come down, and then if we go back up at some time, we’ll always have 30 days of PPE in our Rhode Island stockpile,” Raimondo said.

Looking forward, Raimondo said she plans to follow guidance provided Thursday by federal officials on when states could start reopening the economy, saying they should only consider doing so after 14 days of declining new cases.

While daily confirmed cases had trended downward from April 11 through April 14, the number has since grown each day. The 366 new cases Friday marked a 18% increase compared to Thursday.

“Right now, we’re still going up,” Raimondo said.

The governor said she plans to announce more next week about her plans to reopen the economy, but said people shouldn’t expect everything to look like business-as-usual until there’s a vaccination in place, which could still be more than a year away.

“I am hopeful we’ll get there soon,” Raimondo said about reopening the economy. “We’re just not there yet.”