Key takeaways from Thursday’s COVID briefing:

  • Goal is 48-hour test turnaround next week
  • RI Convention Center to reopen for tests, shots
  • Dr. Alexander-Scott sees ‘a difficult month’ ahead
  • New guidance coming for in-person K-12 school
  • Ongoing talks between National Guard, hospitals

WOONSOCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island leaders on Thursday laid out steps they are taking to address COVID-19 testing problems as daily case counts set new records, while also saying they expect most students to be back in their classrooms after Christmas vacation.

“We were actually kind of like, ramping down this issue with the COVID prior to Thanksgiving,” Gov. Dan McKee said at a coronavirus briefing. “And now we’re ramping it back up.”

As part of that shift in strategy, McKee said he is temporarily appointing Marc Pappas, director of the R.I. Emergency Management Agency, as the state’s chief COVID administrator and a senior adviser in the governor’s office.

Rhode Island continues to report new COVID-19 cases at a level never before seen during the pandemic, with over 3,000 new cases recorded in each of the last three days, according to data released by the R.I. Department of Health. The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Rhode Island has risen to 325.

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Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott warned that January is going to be “a difficult month” when it comes to the pandemic, not only in Rhode Island but regionally and nationally. She estimated that only about 10% of Rhode Island’s current cases are the highly contagious new omicron variant, with most of the cases still being the delta variant.

“We could sustain case numbers through the middle or end of January that will well exceed the peak we have ever experienced throughout this entire pandemic,” she said.

“We’re in an unprecedented moment within an unprecedented two-years-plus period of time,” she added.

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Alexander-Scott said that while initial data suggests omicron is causing less severe illness than delta, its higher transmissibility could lead to an uptick in hospitalizations “just based on the numbers alone.” She also noted the CDC’s recently updated guidance shortening the COVID-19 quarantine period for individuals who are asymptomatic from 10 days to five, followed by five days of mask-wearing.

Individuals who are close contacts of someone who tests positive only need to quarantine if they have not been boosted or if they were vaccinated more than six months ago, Alexander-Scott said. She added that mask-wearing remains essential to mitigating spread of the virus.

The spike in cases has led to frustration about long lines for testing and a limited availability of appointments as demand soars. McKee said he saw the issues firsthand on Wednesday when he visited Central Falls, where Mayor Maria Rivera has been drawing attention to the problem.

“What I saw in Central Falls is we can do a lot better,” he said.

Officials said a new laboratory in New Jersey has been hired to help turn around PCR tests more quickly, and McKee said he has ordered testing sites to be open on New Year’s Day rather than close for the holiday. Rapid tests are also being distributed to high-risk areas in an effort to relieve pressure on state-run sites. Residents continue to be urged to schedule tests online at portal.ri.gov.

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Tom McCarthy, the Health Department’s director of COVID-19 response, said the state has doubled its lab capacity and the goal by next week is to bring down test turnaround times to 48 hours for the general population. He said the processing of tests for nursing homes and schools continues to be prioritized.

McCarthy indicated the state has given out its entire existing supply of rapid tests and therefore won’t be replicating a policy in Massachusetts to send them out to students and staff in advance of the return to school. He said the state is working to secure more tests and plans to hand out 1 million a month for the next few months.

Officials again emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated to protect against severe illness and death from COVID-19, and of getting a booster shot depending on how long ago an original vaccine series was administrated. McKee said a growing number of municipalities are hosting vaccination clinics in order to make it more convenient to get a booster.

The R.I. Convention Center will be reopening as a mass-vaccination and testing site the week of Jan. 10, staffed by the R.I. National Guard, according to the governor. His office later said roughly 200 members of the Guard have been “remobilized” to assist with vaccines and testing there.

McKee said there are no plans to have K-12 schools switch to distance learning across Rhode Island when Christmas vacation ends next week, but he said some individual districts “may take a phased approach” to bringing students back into classrooms. The state’s largest district, Providence, is planning a staggered return beginning Monday.

Additional guidance for schools on updated COVID-19 protocols will be released soon, including information on quarantine policies after close contacts, Alexander-Scott said.

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On hospital staffing — described as “an unprecedented crisis,” particularly at local emergency departments — McKee said National Guard leaders are currently “exploring” with hospital leaders what specific assistance they could provide, but no decisions have been made. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has deployed his state’s National Guard to provide temporary support at dozens of hospitals.

McKee said he has already taken steps to help the hospitals. He cited an executive order requiring masks or proof of vaccination at most indoor establishments, as well as a second order shielding hospitals from legal liability. He also said he spoke with U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh to express concern about the high rates charged by “traveling nurses” who freelance at hospitals as backup staff.

“Why would we allow this gouging that is going on right now in terms of workers?” McKee asked.

Asked about criticism that he is moving too slowly to help the hospitals, McKee said, “I certainly disagree with individuals who think that somehow there’s an easy answer to this and that there’s an easy response to that. Like I said before in my comments, I don’t think they’re really paying attention to the work that we’re doing.”

“I get their frustration, I get their concern,” he added. “We’re hearing that there’s a great deal of stress at Rhode Island Hospital because of the structure of that hospital and the procedures that they provide. But right now — it’s not easy and it’s a challenge, but the word that we’re getting is that they are definitely meeting that challenge up to this point.”

Frank Sims, president of the United Nurses and Allied Professionals union’s Rhode Island Hospital unit, issued a statement shortly after McKee spoke urging the governor “to immediately deploy the National Guard to assist in any way they can.”

“There simply isn’t enough staff to handle the amount of patients coming into the hospital,” Sims said, warning that “the health care system in our state has reached a breaking point, forcing our biggest hospital to take drastic measures.”

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“The employees at Rhode Island Hospital are bending over backwards to assist in this transition – but it is wearing thin on these frontline health care workers, who are now two years into this pandemic,” Sims added. “Staff are stressed, overworked, burnt out, and are now forced to take on even more patients.”

Some local leaders have been pressing McKee to reissue an executive order creating exemptions from the Open Meetings Act allowing virtual participation in government meetings, saying they are struggling to field quorums due to coronavirus quarantines.

The governor called on the R.I. Senate to pass a measure he has introduced making those changes through statute, but said an executive order was still an option. “The best outcome would be a more long-term solution done legislatively,” he said.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, pushed back almost immediately.

“I have spoken with Governor McKee ad nauseam regarding remote meetings,” Ruggerio said in a statement. “Once again, I am respectfully requesting that he issue an executive order, which is the appropriate method of handling a rapidly changing health situation. If reintroduced in the next session, any permanent changes to the state’s Open Meetings law will go through the normal, appropriate committee process, where it can be thoroughly reviewed and vetted, and all ramifications can be considered.”

McKee’s opponents in the 2022 Democratic gubernatorial primary criticized him following the briefing.

General Treasurer Seth Magaziner said the state “can’t wait” any longer for McKee to deploy National Guard personnel to hospitals, while former CVS Health executive Helena Foulkes said, “it is the governor’s fault that our state is so incredibly unprepared for this current surge.” Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea argued McKee “has a history of inaction in the midst of this pandemic” and “shirked his responsibilities.”

Asked at the briefing whether he waited too long to ramp up the state’s coronavirus response capacity to address the current surge in cases, McKee said, “I think that we always can look in the rear-view mirror on things, and perhaps if you had a crystal ball you could have done that. But remember, coming up to Thanksgiving, this issue was not on the table.”

McKee held Thursday’s briefing at the Monsignor Gadoury Catholic Regional School in Woonsocket, where he was joined by Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and North Smithfield Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski. All three emphasized the importance of local governments participating in the response to the ongoing spike in cases, and the two local leaders praised the governor and his team.

“We have an all-in strategy here in the state that includes our municipal leaders along with our state government,” McKee said.

A group of anti-vaccine protestors were on hand outside the briefing, and could be heard by those inside shouting as well as blowing air horns and car horns. Woonsocket police were on hand.