Key takeaways from Monday’s RI COVID-19 briefing

  • School buildings closed through April
  • 114 new cases; total now 408
  • 4th person dies – a man in his 70s
  • Governor warns there is ‘fast spread’
  • Drive-through tests starting at colleges

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Gina Raimondo announced Monday that Rhode Island public school buildings will remain closed for the entire month of April due to coronavirus, forcing students and teachers to continue their ongoing experiment in distance learning.

At her daily briefing on the coronavirus, Raimondo also announced a significant overnight spike in identified cases, with 114 new positive tests, bringing the state’s total to 408 since March 1.

A fourth person has died due to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said he was a man in his 70s. It is unclear if he had underlying health conditions. In addition, 41 people were hospitalized as of Monday, up from 35 on Sunday.

“We believe we’re in a fast spread of the virus at this point in Rhode Island,” the governor said, warning of tough weeks ahead. “In the coming days I am going to be giving some tough news I predict about the rate of increase in these cases,” she said.

“We’re in this for at least another month,” she said.

Alexander-Scott said there have been 15 COVID-19 cases at three Rhode Island nursing homes so far, and urged facilities to strengthen their cleaning protocols. Oak Hill Center in Pawtucket revealed Sunday it had six residents who have tested positive, and the Department of Health confirmed Monday that Golden Crest Nursing Center also has multiple cases.

On testing, Raimondo said the state is roughly halfway to her goal of doing 1,000 tests a day by midweek. Several new drive-through testing operations have been set up, run by the National Guard, on the campuses of the public colleges.

“Do not show up without an appointment to one of these testing centers,” she said. “You will not receive a test. … You will slow up the whole system.” Individuals who want a test should call their primary care physician, an urgent care center or the Department of Health to request one.

She reiterated the guidance residents have been receiving — avoid groups of five or more and stay home if you’re sick, isolating yourself from even your own family members, regardless of whether you’ve received a positive COVID-19 test result.

On equipment, Alexander-Scott said Rhode Island has “done well” in maintaining a supply of ventilators, the machines that help to keep a COVID-19 patient breathing. She said the state has over 200 ventilators available and is hoping to get an additional 600. “There has been progress in getting us there,” she said.

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On schools, Raimondo praised teachers and principals who have been making remote learning work so far. She said if it continues to go well in April, she will “very likely” extend it through May. Temporary Caregiver Insurance (TCI) benefits will be extended for parents who have to stay at home with their children, according to the governor.

The R.I. Department of Education (RIDE) has applied for a federal waiver for school assessments, and will not be administering the RICAS tests or the SAT this spring, according to Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green.

The SAT is typically mandatory for all juniors, and Infante-Green said the state is working with the College Board so that students who want to take the SAT for their college applications can do so in the fall instead.

To help all students have internet access for distance learning, Raimondo said wireless carriers are offering free Wi-Fi hotspot service on smartphones through mid-May. While it’s technically available to everyone, the governor asked those who do not need to use it in order to avoid overloading the networks.

Raimondo said she will hold a special press conference for kids on Thursday along with Infante-Green and Alexander-Scott. Students will be able to send in questions they want answered.

The Department of Education is also launching an April reading challenge, asking children to read every single day for the month. “Let’s make this as fun as possible,” Raimondo said. “It will be good for the mind, good for the soul.”

All non-critical retail stores have been ordered to close as of Monday but can still conduct business online. The Department of Business Regulation is working on guidance for curbside and delivery options. Businesses that need help setting up a website should call (401) 521-HELP.

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Asked what she would need to see to be comfortable reopening the economy, Raimondo said, “I’d have to see the hospital census back to some sense of normalcy and making sure that we have plenty of capacity in the system. I would have to be sure that we have all the [personal protective equipment] that we need for many, many months. We’d have to be sure that industry by industry, we have a new set of rules for how we’re going to live in the new normal.”

As an example, she said if one of the new rules is that everyone needs to have their temperature taken before going into work, she said would want to know that the state has enough thermometers to execute on that.

Responding to a call by Republican lawmakers for the General Assembly to resume meeting, Raimondo said it would be “a terrible idea” for them to gather in person at the same time that state leaders are trying to limit social interactions. She noted that four legislative leaders held an emergency meeting last week to authorize up to $300 million in short-term borrowing.