PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — State health officials are bullish Rhode Island will fully reopen in the coming months, but they don’t expect COVID-19 to completely disappear any time soon.
The state’s COVID-19 response team executive director Tom McCarthy said Rhode Islanders have a lot to be optimistic about locally, as the state’s relatively high vaccination rate, along with its robust infection response infrastructure, make it well-positioned to continue to relax economic and social restrictions.
But he underscored that Rhode Island is interconnected with the rest of the country and globe, and there are a lot of places that still have a long way to go in terms of fighting the virus.
“We have a successful vaccination program but it differs across the country, and when you look globally, it’s an even bigger challenge,” McCarthy said during a weekly COVID-19 news conference Thursday.
He pointed specifically to India, which is experiencing an intense surge of disease and death, saying its high rate of daily infections makes it “ripe for new variants” and continued global spread. With that said, McCarthy was adamant the situation would not prevent Rhode Island from moving forward with its reopening plans, as most restrictions are slated to end this month.
“The state can fully open safely and we can manage this just like we do other infection diseases,” McCarthy said.
Gov. Dan McKee highlighted that restaurants will be allowed to open to 80% capacity beginning Friday, which he said is well-timed ahead of Mother’s Day on Sunday. He called on people to make reservations at restaurants, but he also encouraged continued vigilance.
“We continue to make these incremental changes as we lead up to Memorial Day weekend,” McKee said. “The variants are still a challenge, and we’re seeing that they are much more contagious and can impact people more than the first strain.”
Rhode Island’s daily infections have declined steadily in recent weeks, as its vaccination rate continues to climb. More than half of the state’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, and health officials touted a 65% coverage rate of the state’s eligible population. (The eligible population totals about 80% of the state’s total population.)
But health officials acknowledged that demand is not as high as it was a few weeks ago, and that the state currently has available doses for people who want them. As a result, Rhode Island will continue to shift its focus away from mass vaccination sites to a more targeted approach, similarly to how it started its vaccine rollout in the beginning of the year.
The strategy includes identifying small clusters of unvaccinated groups and bringing doses directly to them. For example, the state estimates roughly 13,500 people 75 years and older remain unvaccinated, and McCarthy said they plan to reach out directly to those people to see if they can bring them vaccines. A similar effort has been underway with homebound residents.
R.I. Department of Health consulting medical director Dr. Philip Chan said the state estimates unvaccinated people 75 years and older have a 50% chance of ending up in the hospital after contracting COVID-19.
“If you’re an older adult who hasn’t been vaccinated, please, please, please consider it,” he said.
Health officials also said they plan to engage more primary care physicians and pediatricians in the vaccination effort moving forward, saying people who are unsure about getting the vaccine might be more encouraged if it came directly their personal doctors.
Chan also said he expects federal regulators will vote on whether to approve use of the Pfizer vaccine for Americans 12 to 15 years old by next week. If approved, that could help bolster the state’s vaccination rate and get more people protected, he added. Chan said his daughter is excited about the prospect of getting vaccinated, and he expects other families are too.
“She wants to get vaccinated and I’m excited to get my kids vaccinated when the time arises,” Chan said.
In non-COVID-related news, McKee told reporters he’s concerned about the growing cries from business owners that there’s a labor shortage in Rhode Island. Critics are quick to point to the extra $300 per week benefit provided to unemployed workers as an incentive to stay out of work.
Others argue people remain concerned about the safety of returning to work, especially to lower-paying, customer-facing jobs, including those in restaurants and hospitality.
Regardless, McKee said he plans to require people to provide proof that they’re seeking jobs in order to receive unemployment benefits beginning May 23. The requirement has been waived throughout the pandemic.
“It’s time to get back to work,” he said.
In a separate announcement, McKee said Rhode Islanders can continue to sign up for health insurance through the state’s health exchange, HealthSourceRI, until August. And because there’s been so many new federal subsidies made available in the recent COVID-19 relief packages, McKee said health insurance through the state’s exchange is more affordable than ever.
“We know that in this pandemic that the health issues are front and center for many families,” he said.
Rhode Island’s outdoor mask mandate was to be lifted Friday for people who are fully vaccinated, but McKee made that change a week early after the CDC updated its guidelines. Masks must still be worn in all indoor public spaces.
On the current trajectory, the capacity limit for businesses and the social gathering limit will be fully removed on Friday, May 28.
Data released Thursday by the Health Department shows nearly 429,000 people who live, work and study in Rhode Island are fully vaccinated.
Health officials also reported 200 new positive cases, a 1.1% daily positivity rate, and 3 additional deaths, while COVID-19 hospitalizations fell to 118.
On Wednesday, McKee got some face time with Vice President Kamala Harris as she and U.S. Commerce Secretary and former Governor Gina Raimondo paid a visit to Rhode Island to meet with small business owners and promote the Biden administrations multitrillion-dollar jobs plan.