Key takeaways from this week’s coronavirus briefing:
- Rhode Island poised to receive 30K vaccine doses
- Field hospitals efficacy threatened by staff shortages
- Struggling businesses frustrated with new restrictions
- ACI outbreak in maximum security unit; 600 infections
- Testing capacity bolstered again
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island anticipates it will receive 29,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine by Christmas, Gov. Gina Raimondo confirmed Thursday.
As 12 News first reported earlier in the day, the vaccines will be made available through both Pfizer and Moderna, and will initially be distributed to health care workers and high-risk individuals, according to the governor.
Raimondo stressed that while the availability of the vaccine — which is still contingent on FDA approval — is good news for Rhode Island, it doesn’t mean that everything will immediately get better.
“They’re going to trickle into Rhode Island over a number of months,” Raimondo said during her weekly news conference. “We need to settle into months more of being careful.”
The news comes as the reported death toll from the pandemic reached a new milestone of 1,400, with nine more people in Rhode Island having died after contracting the virus, according to the R.I. Department of Health.
Additionally, the total number of positive cases since the start of the pandemic surpassed 60,000, with 1,330 new infections reported on Thursday. In addition to the new infections, the Health Department also added 389 newly disclosed cases to prior-day totals over the past two weeks.
The daily positivity rate came out to 8.0%, health officials said, with 16,557 tests administered on Wednesday.
Rhode Island currently has 409 COVID-19 patients in the hospital, 45 of whom are in intensive care and 31 of whom are on ventilators.
“There’s no good news in this data,” Raimondo said.
As the renewed surge of coronavirus infections and hospitalizations has overwhelmed the state’s hospital system, with two field hospitals opening this week, Raimondo called on anyone with a health care background to sign up to lend a hand.
The field hospitals in Cranston and Providence give the state 900 extra beds, but the governor said an ongoing staffing shortage could make them relatively useless.
“What good is a bed if you don’t have adequate staffing?” Raimondo asked, rhetorically.
The state will again start issuing certain temporarily medical licenses, repeating an action taken in the spring, and anyone interested in participating was encouraged to visit www.SkillsForRI.com or the websites of Lifespan and Care New England.
Additionally, people looking to volunteer can look for opportunities at www.RIResponds.org.
“We need you,” Raimondo said.
The weekly briefing on Thursday was the first time Rhode Islanders had heard from the governor since rumors began swirling about her becoming a frontrunner to be President-elect Joe Biden’s secretary of health and human services. Raimondo quashed the speculation during her briefing, saying she will not be filling that job.
Thursday was also the first time the governor had spoken publicly since the start of her two-week partial shutdown that began Monday in response to rising case numbers.
Raimondo said the new restrictions — which her administration is calling a “pause” — will run through Dec. 13 and are intended to reduce community transmission of the virus by dialing down activity and reducing social gatherings. She said the restrictions are key to stemming the recent increase in cases and hospitalizations.
But Raimondo didn’t discount the possibility that the shutdown will continue beyond the two-week period. While the governor said she’s encouraged by early signs of compliance — such as high rates of businesses following health and safety guidelines, along with traffic volume declining more than in previous years — it’s possible two weeks will not be enough.
“Early data suggests Rhode Islanders are listening,” Raimondo said. “Am I going to lift the pause? I don’t know. … We have to see if people keep following the rules.”
Outside the Veterans Memorial Auditorium where the briefing was held, wedding and event industry professionals held a rally across the street. The group said their livelihoods were on life support, and called for a meeting with Raimondo and R.I. Commerce Corp. leaders, asking for more funding to help keep their businesses afloat.
Luke Renchan, who organized the rally, said when it comes to scheduling events right now, “consumer confidence is not there.”
“We want to build that up. We want to build the trust and keep people safe,” he said. “This is the time of year when we get down payments and reserve their events, and that’s not happening quite as much.”
At least one business owner has refused to comply with the governor’s latest shutdown orders, arguing they are being unfairly asked to close while other industries remain open. Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor argued the rules were driven by public health and that the state has allocated $50 million to help struggling businesses stay afloat.
“They are sensible rules,” Pryor said at the briefing.
But there are others also questioning the logic behind Raimondo’s shutdown orders. The governor was grilled about allowing indoor church services to continue at 25% capacity while restricting gathering limits on graveside services to levels lower than many people’s immediately families.
The policy seemingly contradicts much of what the governor and her administration have been saying for months — namely that outside gatherings are much safer than indoor gatherings.
“These stories are truly heartbreaking,” Raimondo said when presented with a specific funeral-planning anecdote during the briefing. “In the case of funerals, weddings — these once-in-a-lifetime events — we’ve been clear that we can make exceptions.”
Yet the pandemic rages on.
The maximum security facility at the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston has been inundated with an outbreak of at least 600 new infections. The news was shortly followed by the resignation of R.I. Department of Corrections medical director Dr. Jennifer Clark.
“The reality is that facility was not built with a public health pandemic in mind,” Raimondo said. “There aren’t even walls in between some inmates.”
The governor thanked Clark for her service, saying the doctor did “a fantastic job” in a position that comes with a high burnout rate. And she offered assurances that the outbreak at the prison was under control.
“We are all over it,” Raimondo said.
In addition to regularly testing the inmates for coronavirus, the Raimondo administration is also looking to bolster its testing capacity in other parts of the state. The plan includes more testing for Rhode Islanders with and without symptoms at various testing sites.
The state is now offering up to 500 new, self-administered BinaxNOW rapid tests per day at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, according to Raimondo, who said that amount could rise to more than 2,000 per day beginning next week.
“Testing hasn’t always been perfect, but here’s the bottom line: there’s more capacity than ever to get a test,” she said. “Even if two weeks ago, you were waiting for days and couldn’t figure it out, it’s better now and I’m asking you to get a test.”
Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott also offered some promising news around a monoclonal antibody treatment recently made available in the state which could help people with milder coronavirus symptoms get better at home.
The treatment, which must be prescribed through a medical provider, isn’t meant to prevent anyone from contracting the virus, but it could keep some people out of the inundated hospitals, Alexander-Scott said.
“There are now better treatments for people in the hospital, and now also for people who have milder illnesses at home,” she added.
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