PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The first coronavirus briefing of the year looked a little different without Gov. Gina Raimondo, who traveled to Delaware Friday to be introduced as President-elect Joe Biden’s commerce secretary nominee, but the sentiment was the same: Rhode Islanders can’t let up on protecting one another from COVID-19.

The R.I. Department of Health reported 924 new coronavirus infections on Friday and a 6% daily positivity rate, with 15,385 tests administered on Thursday. Another six people in the state have died after contracting COVID-19.

R.I. Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said it’s important to remember that these numbers aren’t just statistics.

“Since our last press conference two weeks ago, more than 232 Rhode Islanders with COVID have passed away,” Alexander-Scott said. “That includes 232 mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, grandparents, neighbors, coworkers and friends.”

“We all need to continue following the rules so we can save lives and prevent our hospitals from becoming overwhelmed,” she continued. “It’s especially critical that we all double down now.”

The bright side, she said, is that hospitalizations are continuing to decline. The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Rhode Island dropped down to 390, with 55 in intensive care and 39 on ventilators, according to health officials.

Alexander-Scott said last week, 66 patients on average were being hospitalized each day with the virus, and this week, it’s down to 51.

“Our hospitalizations are still far too high,” she said. “But there is no question that this is a marked improvement from where we were a month ago and it’s a trend we need to see continue.”

Alexander-Scott also noted how, between Dec. 18-26, the state saw six cases of multi-system inflammatory syndrome.

“This brings the case total to seven in Rhode Island across the entire pandemic response,” she said.

She said all six children, ranging in ages from 7-12, were hospitalized, and all either had COVID-19 or the antibodies. None of the cases were connected to one another, she added, and thankfully, all of them are doing much better now.

“While this was a large number of cases in a relatively short window of time, we do know they came a few weeks after we saw a significant spike in COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island at the beginning of December,” she said. “As cases increase, the chances of developing some of the consequences of that can increase as well.”

This, she said, should serve as another reminder to everyone the importance of taking preventative measures to slow the spread of the virus.

Alexander-Scott said 31,541 vaccine doses have been administered to Rhode Islanders so far, of which 29,743 have received the first dose and 1,798 are now fully vaccinated.

Dr. Phillip Chan, a consultant medical director and infectious disease expert, said Rhode Island has the highest rate of vaccine doses administered per capita nationally. He said right now, the state is receiving enough doses to vaccinate 1.5% of the state’s population per week.

Chan provided an updated timeline on where the state stands in its vaccine distribution process.

He said while not all Rhode Islanders in Phase 1 have been vaccinated yet, the state is already beginning to vaccinate other populations. He also reminded everyone that the process will take time, and the groups being vaccinated will overlap.

“This is going to roll out over the course of months, not days or weeks,” Chan said.

Courtesy: RIDOH

Chan said he expects Rhode Islanders 75 years of age and older to begin receiving the vaccine in February and March, though it could happen sooner if more vaccines become available.

“There other vaccine candidates on the horizon,” he said. “AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, so the timeline could be much shorter.”

Alexander-Scott detailed a new automatic contact-tracing system which she said makes it easier and faster to get in touch with a person’s close contacts. Instead of speaking with a contact tracer via phone, anyone who tests positive will be asked to fill out an online form listing their close contacts right after receiving their results.

Once those contacts are submitted, Alexander-Scott said the contact-tracing team will send out an automated text message informing them that they may have been exposed and need to quarantine.

“Our contact tracers are great but sometimes that process takes some time,” she added. “We estimate that this has already saved our team 1,200 hours of work, meaning we have more time to devote to complicated case investigations and contact tracing.”

When asked whether the automated message would cause to a decline in compliance, Alexander-Scott argued that it will actually lead to more compliance since people will quickly know when they need to quarantine.

“Every minute counts with this virus. The sooner we can get people into quarantine, the sooner we can slow the spread,” she said.

Alexander-Scott also discussed the highly contagious coronavirus variant, which was detected Thursday in Connecticut.

“While we have not yet identified it here in RI, I have full expectation that we eventually will,” she said, adding that health officials are monitoring it.

Alexander-Scott urged people who are over 65 or have underlying conditions to look into receiving the monoclonal antibody treatment that’s being offered in Rhode Island.

The treatment, she said, is doctor-recommended and given intravenously. She said it’s important for patients to act quickly to see whether they qualify.

“The sooner you start, the better and more effective it is,” Alexander-Scott said, adding that it has proven extremely effective in preventing patients from experiencing severe symptoms and needing to be hospitalized. “People with COVID who received the treatment have started feeling better as soon as the next day.”

She said anyone who tests positive and believes they qualify for the treatment should contact their primary care provider to learn more about it. Those without a healthcare provider, she said, is encouraged to utilize Brown Emergency Medicine’s Telecare services.