Key takeaways from Wednesday’s briefing:

  • 1 death, 997 total
  • Large social gatherings, crowding at bars still an issue
  • Virtual school forum at 3 p.m. Thursday
  • Not enough people getting tested, Raimondo says
  • New initiative, $100,000 in grants to help keep seniors connected

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s cumulative COVID-19 case count surpassed 18,000 on Wednesday as the R.I. Department of Health reported 76 new positive cases.

However, roughly 3% of the total cases are out-of-staters who tested positive for the coronavirus in Rhode Island, according to new data released by the state on Tuesday.

The Health Department also reported 27 repeat positive cases on Wednesday, and the daily positivity rate came out to 2%.

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One more person has died after contracting the disease, the Health Department said, bringing the death toll to 997. Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said that person was in their 60s.

During her weekly briefing Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Gina Raimondo said once the state reaches 1,000 deaths, she plans to order flags to half-staff and have the State House illuminated in honor of all the lives lost to the virus.

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As of midday Wednesday, 67 COVID-19 patients were in the hospital, of which five were in the ICU and three were on ventilators.

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Raimondo on Wednesday sought to address concerns from some parents and educators about having students return to the classroom in the fall. Last month, she set a goal to have schools reopen on Aug. 31 and asked each district to submit three plans: one for full in-person learning, one for full distance learning, and one hybrid of the two. Each district met the deadline last Friday, Raimondo said, and while the plans varied in quality, the state will work with the districts to solidify the details.

“We’re learning from each other,” Raimondo said. “Some of the plans we received were so creative and we’re going to take from those and share it with everyone else so that everybody is in a good place.”

The Health Department and the R.I. Department of Education are still reviewing those plans, and Raimondo said “everything is on the table” right now.

Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said it’s too early to say which proposal will be chosen.

“We are not ready to say we are not going back in person, we’re doing this we’re doing that … we’re planning,” she said Wednesday. “It’s the most responsible thing to do.”

“You’ve got to trust that we’re doing the right thing,” Infante-Green added.

Related: Decision on reopening RI schools might not come until mid-August »

In terms of safety, Raimondo said there’s a “huge amount of misinformation” going around. “Don’t let anyone scare you,” she said, assuring state officials are will be working hard over the next few weeks to make sure students and teachers are safer in schools than they would be elsewhere.

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“That means thinking about children’s educational needs, nutritional needs, social needs, mental health needs,” she said. “This is very complex. We can’t minimize it. We can’t minimize how difficult it is, and we can’t minimize how much of a long-term cost if could have on our children if we don’t get them back into school.”

Aiming to keep the process “transparent and fact-based,” Raimondo said their plans will be made public and she will dedicate a portion of each weekly briefing to provide an update on schools.

The governor also announced that starting this week, she and Infante-Green will host a virtual forum every Thursday at 3 p.m. on her Facebook page to discuss schools and answer questions. This week, the state leaders will be joined by two pediatricians, according to Raimondo.

“We are going to do out best to communicate more, base it on the facts and the science, listen to you, hear your anxieties and together, get ourselves to a place where we can safety return our kids to school,” she said.

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The governor also continued to stress the importance of wearing masks, saying it’s a big reason why Rhode Island hasn’t seen a resurgence in new cases and hospitalizations. Despite the heat wave last weekend, Raimondo said state inspectors saw nearly 95% mask-wearing compliance among workers in restaurants, retailers and other businesses, as well as 90% compliance among customers.

“Obviously, we want to be at 100%, there’s room for improvement there, and I’d ask us all to try a bit harder,” she said. “But by and large, we’re doing a great job, so the thing we have to do is stay at it.”

While compliance has been good in terms of masks, Raimondo said the state isn’t doing as well when it comes to social gatherings, which are currently capped at group sizes of 25 people. Inspectors have seen crowding in restaurants, bars and on boats, according to Raimondo, and the state’s contact-tracing efforts have also linked cases to backyard parties that had more than 25 people in attendance.

Raimondo said she understands it’s summer and people have been cooped up for months. But not following her rules could result in a resurgence of the disease, Raimondo warned.

“We’ve got to get people back to work,” she said. “We have to get these kids back to school. The only way we’re going to be able to do that is if we keep a lid on the virus.”

“We all belong to each other,” Raimondo added. “It’s not just about you. It’s about what you’re doing that hurts other people and I’m asking you, please, to try harder and just obey the rules.”

The governor said that if she continues to see crowding at bars, the still will issue stricter regulations, which Raimondo said she doesn’t want to do since so many businesses are already struggling.

When it comes to testing, Raimondo put it flatly: “more folks need to get tested.”

She said the state is only conducting around 3,000 COVID-19 tests per day when the capacity is more than 5,000, and urged anyone who’s experiencing symptoms to schedule a test.

“If you’re not feeling well, you have a headache, you have a fever, you have the sniffles, you’re congested, you’re coughing — please call your doctor and go get tested,” she said. “We need to do more testing, we need to know what’s going on in the population, we need to get contact tracing going on people who test positive.”

People who work closely with the public should also get tested, she reiterated, along with people wh have received a call from the state’s contact tracers or believe they may have come into contact with a person who’s infected. State officials urge qualifying people to visit to schedule a test.

Here’s where to get tested for COVID-19 in RI, Mass. »

Alexander-Scott also announced an expanded partnership with Lifespan to increase testing for nursing home residents and staff members, which she said will help cut down the slow turnaround times and backlogs at commercial labs.

Raimondo said the resumption of visitation at nursing homes and assisted-living facilities has gone well so far, but since there are still limitations, she announced $100,000 in grants to help more residents connect with their loved ones virtually. Eligible facilities can receive up to $3,000 to purchase smart devices and related accessories.

Interested parties can visit the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services website to apply.

The state is also launching a new “virtual community center” through which features different ways for senior citizens to connect, participate in wellness programs and engage in technology training. Raimondo said it’s an “opportunity to keep our seniors active, healthy, informed and engaged” during the pandemic.

The governor also said the state has raised more than $3 million in private funds to provide relief for undocumented residents, who are ineligible for aid due to their immigration status. She urged anyone who can to donate by texting “WeR1” to 27126.