PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A prominent Harvard health researcher says it’s too soon to know whether Rhode Island can start reopening in early May, but he thinks the state is closer to doing so than Massachusetts.
Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute and the incoming dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, said Rhode Island is in good shape when it comes to testing capacity, though that’s only one factor when it comes to reopening the economy.
Jha and his fellow Harvard researchers assert that nationwide, 500,000 daily tests are needed in conjunction with declining cases in order to know if it’s safe to reopen the economy. That’s a rate of 152 tests per 100,000 people.
A Target 12 analysis of Rhode Island’s testing data from the past week shows the state exceeds that threshold, conducting an average of 195 daily tests per 100,000 residents.
“Rhode Island is the only state I know of that meets that testing threshold,” Jha said in an interview Monday. “It really has done a very, very good job of ramping up testing capacity. That’s going to be critical when Rhode Island decides to open up.”
Jha said it would not be safe for Rhode Island to open its economy yet; sufficient testing needs to be paired with at least two weeks of declining new cases, robust contact tracing and sufficient hospital capacity.
“Testing is the one that a lot of states are going to struggle with,” Jha said. “It’s one of those issues that Rhode Island has already done a very good job of tackling.”
Rhode Island’s testing capacity has been heavily bolstered by Woonsocket-based CVS Health, which opened a rapid testing site at Twin River in early April, doubling the state’s daily testing rate overnight.
Other testing sites in Rhode Island include the three state colleges, multiple hospitals and respiratory clinics. On Tuesday, the first walk-up clinic will open in South Providence, as officials step up outreach to underserved communities.
Massachusetts is well below the Harvard researchers’ desired testing threshold, at an average of 94 daily tests per 100,000 in the seven days ending April 19.
Still, Massachusetts has tested more than 162,000 people so far, with more than 5,400 tests conducted Sunday and upwards of 8,000 on other days.
“Massachusetts right now is several weeks away from reopening,” Jha said. “Our deaths are really peaking right now. So I think Massachusetts still has some time to keep ramping up those tests and I know there is a plan by Governor Baker to do so.”
He estimated Rhode Island is at least “a couple of weeks away” from reopening, depending on whether the number of daily new cases starts consistently trending downward. Asked if it was realistic to think Raimondo’s stay-at-home order might not be renewed after its current expiration date of May 8, Jha said it depends on the numbers this week and next.
“If those show real declining cases and relatively low total number of cases, then going into an early phase 1 on May 8 could be reasonable,” he said. (Phase 1 refers to the latest federal guidance on reopening the economy in three phases.)
Gov. Gina Raimondo on Monday started laying out her own criteria for potentially opening the economy, listing six “key indicators” at her daily news conference. The indicators include having the capacity to continue identifying community spread, making sure the healthcare system is prepared and making sure businesses, schools and other locations are ready for “long-term social distancing.”
“We have to be really sure that our quarantining, isolation, testing, contact tracing is in an excellent place so we can pinpoint any future closures,” Raimondo said.
Rhode Island had two days in a row of decreasing cases over the weekend, but saw another jump on Monday in both new cases and hospitalizations.
The governor said the state has certainly “flattened the curve” of cases, but is not yet past the peak, despite Vice President Mike Pence suggesting so on Sunday.
“That’s clearly not true,” Raimondo said Monday when asked about Pence’s comments, adding that she had not heard what he said.
Dr. Jha said Monday it’s too soon to know if Rhode Island is past the peak, which requires more than just a couple of days of decline. (He spoke to Target 12 before Monday’s new data was released.)
“There’s a very famous line by Dr. Tony Fauci that we don’t get to make the timeline — the virus gets to make the timeline,” Jha said.