Key takeaways from Tuesday’s briefing:

  • 26 new deaths; largest one-day total
  • New “Crush COVID RI” contact-tracing app
  • Hospitalizations tick up
  • 50K masks for childcare organizations

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The R.I. Department of Health said on Tuesday 26 more people have died after contracting COVID-19, marking the largest death toll reported in a single day so far in Rhode Island, though health officials say only about half of the deaths occurred in the last 24 hours.

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The new deaths were disclosed on the same day state officials unveiled a new mobile app designed to track Rhode Islanders’ locations, monitor their symptoms and connect them with services and testing.

The app, dubbed “Crush COVID RI,” was made available to download starting Tuesday, offering Rhode Islanders a new way to track their travel histories, and making it easier for state health officials to analyze how the disease might be spreading after someone tests positive.

“This is a homegrown app,” said Gov. Gina Raimondo during a news conference Tuesday. “It’s going to be a tool that helps everybody in Rhode Island get through the crisis.”

Chirag Patel, the state’s chief of information technology agency and enterprise applications, underscored that the app is entirely optional, and that users can shut off location tracking, meaning people can still use other services offered through the app, even if they don’t want to share their travel histories.  

“You can stop recording your location any time you want,” Patel said during a briefing with reporters on Tuesday. “There is absolutely no personal information that’s being stored on the app.”

The Health Department will not have real-time access to the collected information, Patel added, and a person must choose to share that information. The app collects 20 days of travel history and automatically deletes older information, according to state officials.

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“When I started this I said to the team that I need you to make something that tracks contacts, and enables us to keep a lid on the virus, but protects people’s privacy and data in an iron clad way, so that’s what this is designed to do,” Raimondo said.

During the ongoing public health crisis, governments across the world have developed and implemented different types of apps with varying levels of success, as contact tracing is a key public health response strategy that can help stem spread of the disease.

The efforts nonetheless have been closely monitored and scrutinized by privacy advocates and civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union.

The nonprofit on Tuesday issued a white paper with safeguards that governments should implement when designing tech-assisted contact tracing, such as making the technology voluntary, equitable and protected.

“Governments should require that any data obtained from these tools may be used only by public health agencies and for public health purposes related to the pandemic, and should be destroyed after its use expires,” Neema Singh Guliani of the ACLU wrote in the paper.  

The current version of the Rhode Island app, developed in partnership with the information technology company Infosys, is completely voluntary and the data is protected, according to Patel, who said it’s mostly Health Department officials who will use the information.

And while some third-party contractors might have access to some of the information, they will likewise be prohibited from sharing that data elsewhere. The data will not be sold, Patel added.

ACLU of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown lauded the Raimondo administration for making the app opt-in, and location tracking voluntary, but said there are still some significant outstanding questions about it that need to be addressed.

“We recognize the urgency of stemming the pandemic, and are not opposed to technological tools that may offer public health benefits,” Brown said in a statement. “However, deployed incorrectly, the app has the potential to interfere with public health efforts, undermine trust and violate individual’s rights.”

Brown specifically raised concerns surrounding whether the information would be shared with law enforcement, if the privacy protection protocols would be audited by a third party and whether private employers could require employees to use the app.

Raimondo said she wants businesses and employers to encourage patrons and employees to use the app, but specifically said they shouldn’t be forced. When asked earlier in the day whether private entities could mandate use of the app for employment, transportation or access to housing, Patel said the question hadn’t yet been discussed.

“I don’t think that conversation has come up,” Patel said.

In addition to the location tracking, the app offers a variety of other services, including an option to schedule a test for COVID-19. It also helps people access health and human services if they test positive for the disease and must isolate or quarantine at home.

Users will be prompted once a day to answer questions about how they’re feeling, which Raimondo said will help the state monitor for possible flareups in the future. People will be asked for their ZIP codes to show public health officials whether a cluster of people are suddenly getting sick in one part of the state.

Raimondo said she understands some people might be wary about the app, but asked everyone to download it anyway, saying the information will be more useful if more people use the app. Ideally, she’d like to see more than 90% of the state’s population using the app, but said any amount is better than none.

“We can’t stop it, we can only hope to contain it, so if everyone is on it we can quickly identify hot spots,” Raimondo said. “Even 5% of the population will help.”

The app for now only tracks locations, so Raimondo urged people to continue to keep a daily log of the people they come into contact with. The governor said a future version of the app might enable Bluetooth technology, which could notify users of potential exposure if they were in the same vicinity as someone else with the disease.

The strategy has been rolled out in other nations, including Germany and South Korea, and sparked concerns among privacy groups who said the information can be unreliable and ineffective.

“Future versions may have the ability to ping off other people’s phone,” Raimondo said. “But we’re not there yet.”

The new deaths reported Tuesday included people ranging in age from their 50s to their 100s, bringing the death toll to 532, according to Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott. Nursing home residents made up 24 of the 26 new deaths, as the disease continues to disproportionately affect older people with underlying health conditions living in congregate-care settings.

“There isn’t anything new that happened from a statewide or epidemiological standpoint,” Alexander-Scott said in response to a question about the spike.

The director said the state should have more information next week about the ongoing antibody test study, which should continue to improve health officials’ understanding of the disease in Rhode Island. A random sample of 5,000 Rhode Islanders have been asked to participate.

Alexander-Scott also reiterated that people must stay in 14-day quarantine if they have come into contact with someone with the disease, even if they get tested and the results come back negative.

“If you were a contact of someone with COVID-19, and were told to quarantine, you need to closely monitor for symptoms — no matter what the test results said,” Alexander-Scott said.

The number of hospitalizations climbed by 11 to 247, according to the Health Department, though fewer patients are currently in intensive care (59) and on ventilators (44). There were 22 new people admitted to the hospital compared to 11 discharges, according to state data.

The state’s cumulative number of cases now stands at 12,951, with 134 more people testing positive since Monday. The number of new cases — widely considered a leading indicator of how quickly the disease is spreading — has been trending downward in recent weeks.

Raimondo said she expects to make some additional announcements later this week about a variety of executive orders set to expire on Friday, including a requirement that domestic travelers quarantine for 14 days when visiting Rhode Island.

All Rhode Island state parks are now open and Raimondo announced Monday that two state beaches — East Matunuck and Scarborough — will reopen on Memorial Day. Parking will be free, though the number of parking spots will be limited, portable toilets will be available, concession stands will be closed, and there will not be a lifeguard on duty.

Raimondo also said she is aiming to allow in-person religious services to resume the weekend of May 30, with specific guidelines to be released in the coming days. As the economy gradually reopens, Raimono noted the need for childcare services — which have largely remained shuttered in recent months. She said the state is on track to allow childcare facilities to reopen on June 1.

Raimondo expects to offer more guidance about childcare in the coming weeks, but said the state is providing 50,000 surgical masks to the more than 900 childcare settings across the state to get the process started.

Phase 2 of the reopening process could to start in early June, when more businesses are expected to be allowed to reopen, including hair salons and barbershops.