PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Dan McKee has deployed the National Guard to help reduce the stress at hospitals, while also increasing testing and vaccinations in the state Rhode Island continues to navigate a massive increase in cases driven by the omicron variant.
At a briefing Wednesday, McKee announced that National Guard personnel will be assigned to Butler Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Providence owned by Care New England. Adjutant Gen. Christopher Callahan, who leads the National Guard, said its members will handle tasks such as transportation, patient observation and others that don’t require high-level medical expertise.
The Guard’s assistance will allow Care New England to open up more beds at Butler for “non-critical” patients, McKee said, and thus relieve some of the pressure on other hospitals. The state’s busiest emergency departments are at Rhode Island Hospital, owned by Lifespan, and Kent, owned by CNE.
“Butler Hospital will temporarily repurpose Ray Hall Conference Center, to serve as a 25-bed unit for behavioral health patients that have been assessed as low-acuity, in order to accommodate patients who are boarding in emergency departments across the state, so they can begin treatment in an appropriate health care facility,” Mary Marran, Butler’s president and chief operating officer, said in a statement.
“The role of the RING will be to monitor patients and ensure patient safety,” she said. “This will not require the RING to perform the duties of credentialed medical staff, and therefore will not add to the strain we are currently seeing on our medical workers.”
On testing, McKee said Rhode Island is conducting more tests than at any point during the pandemic. McKee said 175,000 tests were administered last week, nearly equivalent to the population of Providence, and equal to about 17% of the state’s entire population.
“I think these numbers speak for themselves,” McKee said.
State officials have said a goal of turning around PCR test results within 48 hours, and McKee said the current turnaround time is now just over two days on average.
“We know that’s not yet the case for everyone but that’s good progress, and I want Rhode Islanders to know that our team is going to continue working until everyone is seeing results within this 24- to 48-hour timeframe,” McKee noted.
Over the past few weeks, McKee said they have been able to increase the capacity of 10,000 tests per day, to close to 20,000 tests per day. The state has also received an additional 100,000 at-home rapid tests and expects additional shipments soon, which will be distributed through cities and towns, and other community partners. Details on how to get these tests are coming soon, McKee added.
A drive-thru testing site will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at CCRI in Warwick starting Thursday. Appointments for the new testing site will go online at portal.ri.gov around 1 p.m.
Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott stressed that Rhode Islanders don’t need to get tested if you don’t have symptoms, haven’t been exposed to someone with COVID, or do not work in a healthcare or congregate setting. And if you have tested positive, you don’t have to get retested for COVID for 90 days, she said. Those who do test positive should immediately seek treatment, such as monoclonal antibodies.
Alexander-Scott said 90% of cases in Rhode Island are estimated to be the omicron variant, up from 45% last week.
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“The good news is we could be nearing our peak for cases and hospitalizations,” Alexander-Scott said, while warning that many variables could affect the trajectory.
Health officials stress that getting vaccinated is the best protection against the virus, and McKee said the focus right now is getting booster shots into arms. As of Wednesday morning, only 32% of all Rhode Islanders have gotten their booster, according to McKee.
The vaccination capacity in Rhode Island has increased with 65,000 appointments available per week, which is up from 45,000 that were available a couple of weeks ago.
New data released by the R.I. Department of Health reveals there were 4,522 positive cases recorded Wednesday, as well as an additional seven deaths.
Hospitalizations remained steady Wednesday, according to the data, with 485 infected patients currently admitted. Of those patients, 47 are in the ICU and 32 are on ventilators.
When it comes to the omicron variant, health officials recorded 85 new cases since data was previously released Tuesday, bringing the state’s total to 281.
An additional 35 more COVID cases were also linked to the delta variant, bringing the overall total to 6,389.
These confirmed cases are just a sample size, however, since the Health Department sequences a portion of the new cases each week to screen for variants.
Several community vaccination clinics will be held at various points on Thursday including in Barrington, East Greenwich, Lincoln, Providence and Wakefield.
McKee noted that those who are unvaccinated “have made up their mind” and said their decision should be respected. He added that during a visit at Rhode Island Hospital last week, he was told that between 50% and 75% of those hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated. “Be safe,” he said.
Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, who recently tested positive for the virus, said: “You really don’t want to get this. I was fortunate enough I had taken my vaccines and also had my booster. And still, the illness takes a toll on you.”
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On the National Guard deployment, 180 guard members were mobilized last week and this week it is being expanded to 200, with 60 members going to Butler Hospital.
Callahan said about 75 Guard members are working at the new vaccine effort at the Convention Center, 25 are assisting in the Central Falls walk-in clinic, and five or so are working with the Emergency Management Association to backstock high-end distribution.
He said state officials are being “deliberate” about who to use and how to use them in order to avoid causing other harm by pulling key people out of civilian health or safety jobs.
“We do not want to hurt one entity in order to plus-up another entity,” Callahan said.
Rhode Island is also putting a plan in place to expedite emergency licenses for recently graduated nurses. McKee said the state is working with Rhode Island College, the University of Rhode Island, CCRI, Salve Regina University, New England Institute of Technology, and other institutions to conduct a targeted outreach.
Additionally, McKee has asked the R.I. Department of Health to update the way the state reports the hospitalization data to differentiate between those who are hospitalized for COVID-19 versus for other reasons but testing positive. It’s similar to what other states are doing, including Massachusetts and New York.
McKee said his office is exploring options to keep the current state of emergency in place past mid-February, when his current emergency order regarding the pandemic will hit a 180-day expiration date set by the General Assembly last year. Lawmakers can vote to extend the state of emergency if they choose to do so.