Key takeaways from Friday’s briefing:
- 13 new deaths, 202 total; new record for cases
- Extra pay for congregate-care workers making less than $20/hour
- 20,000 antibody tests delivered for new study
- New financial assistance for businesses, homeowners, renters
- Hospitals to start non-critical surgeries again soon
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Another 13 people have died because of COVID-19 in Rhode Island, as Gov. Gina Raimondo on Friday announced the launch of a new antibody test, along with hazard pay for congregate-care workers making less than $20 per hour.
Raimondo said the decision to start offering more money to front-line workers in nursing homes, group homes and developmental disabilities homes comes as the disease-struck industries have been losing low-wage employees.
“I’ve decided to take action because these folks need some relief,” Raimondo said, noting that she had hoped the federal government would have started offering the extra pay by now.
“We can’t afford to do this forever,” she added. “It’s temporary, but it’s now.”
The so-called Workforce Stabilization Fund for private providers will allow care facilities to increase weekly wages for employees making less than $20 per hour beginning in the first week of May. Employers are encouraged to start applying next week with the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services.
“We know these settings need additional support,” Raimondo said.
In a follow-up conference call with reporters, R.I. Department of Administration Director Brett Smiley said the money for the hazard pay program would come from some of the over $1 billion in federal relief aid already announced for Rhode Island.
Nursing homes have been hit hardest in Rhode Island, with residents making up the vast majority of the 202 people so far who have died from the disease. During a conference call with reporters, state leaders confirmed one resident and one staff at the R.I. Veterans Home have tested positive for the disease.
The newly announced cases mark the first time the disease has affected the state-run nursing home for roughly 200 wartime veterans.
The governor also announced starting this weekend, members of the Rhode Island National Guard will be supporting congregate care settings such as nursing homes. Teams will be available to help with PPE guidance, infection control, testing questions and more.
The people reported dead on Friday were between their 50s and their 90s, according to Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott. Rhode Island set another daily record for newly confirmed coronavirus cases on Friday as 437 tests came back positive in 24 hours.
A total of 6,699 Rhode Islanders have now tested positive for COVID-19 since March 1. A high percentage of each day’s tests continue to come back high, which could complicate the decision of starting to reopen the economy in two weeks.
The state is eyeing new ways to expand testing, reminding anyone with symptoms to contact their health care provider and set up an appointment. The state announced a new drive-thru testing site that will be open Monday through Friday at the Comprehensive Community Action Program in Cranston. Raimondo said other communities such as Central Falls and Woonsocket need sites, too.
Rhode Island has administered more tests per capita than any other state, which Raimondo said earned a shout out from Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House coronavirus task force during a conference call with governors Friday.
The state has tested roughly 4% of the population, according to Raimondo, who said she would like that number to grow with more more walk-up and mobile-testing sites.
In an effort to improve public health officials’ understanding of the disease in Rhode Island, Raimondo also announced the state has received 20,000 antibody tests.
The new tests, which will be administered to a random sample of Rhode Islanders across the state, will help public health officials better understand what percentage of the overall population currently has the disease. New York concluded its own antibody test this week that suggested one of every five New Yorkers may have contracted the virus.
“We know that a lot more people have been infected than we’ve been able to test,” Raimondo said. “That’s a fact.”
Raimondo has formed a task force to administer the antibody tests and analyze the results, an effort she said will take weeks, not days. The task force will be headed by doctors at Brown University and Lifespan, Rhode Island’s largest hospital group.
“This isn’t a quick process,” Raimondo said. “It requires expertise and science to get it right.”
In addition to the new health-related developments, Raimondo also made a slew of announcements related to financial assistance for businesses and residents.
President Trump this week signed a bill providing additional funding to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, a popular low-interest loan program for small businesses that quickly ran out of money when it first launched a few weeks ago.
Raimondo encouraged businesses owners to call their bankers immediately to apply for the new money, which can be used to cover payroll and some fixed-cost expenses such as rent and utilities.
“Call your bank right now if you need a loan,” Raimondo said.
In the initial roll-out of the program, some businesses owners complained they were turned away from applying at financial institutions because they didn’t have an existing banking relationship. If businesses are again having trouble, Raimondo encouraged owners to email the R.I. Commerce Corp. at PPP@commerceri.com for help.
On the residential side, Raimondo announced 20 banks and credit unions have agreed to forgo mortgage payments for a 90-day grace period as needed — and not report any late payments to credit agencies, meaning it will not hurt people’s credit scores. There will also be a 60-day moratorium on initiating evictions. And there will be no mortgage-related late fees, she added.
“The last thing you should have to deal with right now is a late fee,” Raimondo said.
A list of the participating financial institutions will be posted on the R.I. Department of Business Regulation’s website: dbr.ri.gov.
For low-wage renters, Raimondo said the state has put together a $1.5 million rental assistance program — but she’s not sure yet how the state will administer it, and expects to provide more details next week.
“If you’re a low-income person, and you’re stressed about paying your rent, help is on the way,” Raimondo said.
One relative bright spot in the Health Department’s data release was hospitalizations — even as the number of confirmed cases rises, there has been no increase in the number of Rhode Island COVID-19 patients in the hospital.
There were 267 people hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Friday, down slightly since Monday. However, the number of patients in the ICU or on a ventilator both rose slightly.
The public health crisis has taken a toll on the finances of hospitals, which for weeks have kept hospital beds free in preparation for a surge. In doing so, the hospitals have postponed non-critical surgeries, which are both a part of providing care — and a lucrative source of revenue.
Raimondo noted the financial struggle, saying she’s going to start allowing hospitals to provide non-critical surgeries again in the coming weeks..
Hospitals are expected to submit plans to the state by Monday, showing how the institutions can start offering the services again safely.
“We now need to get back into the business of allowing the hospitals to do some of these non-critical services,” Raimondo said. “It’s time we start to do this.”
Finally, Raimondo called on Rhode Islanders to be especially conscious of the fact that domestic violence is rising across the state. The number of 911 calls have been skyrocketing in recent weeks, according to data shared by the R.I. State Police.
“The fact of the matter is, not everybody is safe at home,” Raimondo said.
Raimondo encouraged anyone suffering from domestic violence to reach out, and reminded everyone that shelters and nonprofits advocates remain open during the public health crisis.
The governor announced next Thursday, she along with Attorney General Peter Neronha, and members of the federal delegation, along advocates from community will host a “Violence Prevention Facebook Town Hall at 11 a.m.
“If you feel unsafe, I want you to reach out for help,” Raimondo said. “If you are safe, I still want you to pay attention, because chances are someone in your neighborhood or place of work isn’t.”
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