Key takeaways from Wednesday’s briefing

  • New mandates coming Friday
  • Raimondo considering move back to Phase 2
  • Average cases nearing 400 per day
  • RI hiring 100 more contact tracers
  • Fatal drug overdoses growing at record rate

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Gina Raimondo said Wednesday the coronavirus situation continues to move in the wrong direction in Rhode Island, warning she is likely to announce new mandated restrictions Friday.

“We’re in a bad place,” Raimondo said during her weekly news conference. “I’m struggling to find ways to encourage folks and communicate given the fact that we’re all sick and tired of doing this.”

Raimondo plans to hold a special news conference Friday to announce additional restrictions, which she said is necessary because of the recent increases of cases, hospitalizations and positivity rates. And while she wouldn’t provide specifics, Raimondo said she’s looking at workplaces and reducing social gathering limits from 15 people.

“It’s not a good news story,” Raimondo said about the recent surge of COVID-19 cases, which is also being seen elsewhere in the country. “Everything is on the table.”

Absent a turnaround, the governor said Rhode Island would likely have to move back to Phase 2 of her reopening plan within the next couple of weeks. The state has been in Phase 3 since June 30, when she loosened up some restrictions on restaurant and store capacity, along with social gathering sizes for weddings, catered parties and sporting events.

On Wednesday, the R.I. Department of Health announced another four Rhode Islanders had died after contracting the coronavirus, bringing the state’s death toll to 1,197 since March.

Health officials also reported 425 new positive cases and a daily positivity rate of 3.2%, with 13,397 tests conducted the previous day. In addition to the 425 new infections, the Health Department also added 80 newly disclosed cases to the totals for previous days over the past two weeks.

Raimondo acknowledged that testing has been rising in recent weeks, but she said that doesn’t help explain why cases have soared. The seven-day average of daily cases approached 400 on Wednesday.

There are currently 136 COVID-19 patients in the hospital, with 18 in the intensive care unit and eight on ventilators.

In response to the renewed surge, which the governor said she is now considering a second wave of the virus, Raimondo called on Rhode Islanders to avoid informal gatherings and hanging out with friends indoors. She also encouraged people to maintain consistent groups of acquaintances they see day-to-day.

The Health Department continues to point the finger at small gatherings as the main driver of the recent surge of infections, as cases once concentrated to college-age students have been increasing among other age groups in recent weeks.

The governor warned that the current trend of case growth indicates hospitalizations will likely start rising more sharply within the next couple weeks. And she warned levels “could surpass the surge capacity in our hospitals in four to five weeks.”

Hospitalizations actually fell by about 30 people Wednesday, but a Health Department spokesperson told 12 News the decline largely stems from the state removing patients who remain in the hospital, but are not longer infectious. Previously people would only be removed from the state’s hospitalization data if they were discharged or died, which wasn’t capturing people who might have to be in the hospital for periods longer than the duration of their infections.

Regardless, Raimondo said the upward trend remains concerning.

“We’re in a tricky spot,” she said, adding that she hopes the state will not need to use its field hospitals.

The governor recently announced the state would shut down two of its three makeshift hospital facilities constructed earlier in the year, after hospitalizations fell significantly during the summer. But deconstruction hasn’t started yet at the R.I. Convention Center, one of the two field hospitals slated to shutter, and Raimondo said she would consider delaying that process if current trends continue.

“It’s crystal clear to me that if we don’t impose new restrictions, we will be opening field hospitals,” Raimondo said.

Despite the recent surge of infections, however, Raimondo remained steadfast in her resolve that schools should remain open to in-person learning. She pointed to various studies that showed spread is limited in educational settings across the globe, and underscored that contact tracing efforts in Rhode Island show that students learning from home are not necessarily staying at home.

“There’s no data to suggest that it’s safer for teachers and students because they’re still getting the virus at similar and higher rates than they do at school,” she argued. “The kids at home are more susceptible to abuse and neglect [and] falling behind in school.”

On the topic of contact tracing, Raimondo announced the state is looking to hire 100 new case investigators, as there is currently a backlog of case work. The governor described the system as “strained” in part because of the soaring cases, but also because Rhode Islanders are interacting more.

“People have too many contacts,” she said.

Raimondo also called on people to be nicer to contact tracers when they get called by the Health Department, saying she’s received reports that some people are becoming verbally aggressive. The governor said while she understands that “tensions are high,” it “does not give us the right to be mean.”

“The level of aggression that our contact tracers are receiving in the past couple of weeks from folks just because they’re trying to do their job is not OK,” Raimondo said.

Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said contact tracing last week showed infections contracted at workplaces doubled to 88 compared to the week before. She also said college-aged Rhode Islanders continue to have an oversized representation in recent infections, but that cases are becoming “more evenly distributed among other age brackets.”

Raimondo said business leaders could help the effort by discouraging carpooling (unless windows are open and masks are worn), discouraging gatherings outside of work, providing workers opportunities to get tested and allowing employees to work from home.

In a reminder that the pandemic isn’t the only public health crisis Rhode Island faces, Alexander-Scott pointed to an alarming trend of fatal drug overdoses, which are on pace to reach a new record high this year in Rhode Island.

Currently, the state is on track to exceed the last peak in 2016 by 25%, according to the director.

“In July, we had more deaths than any other time,” she said.

Alexander-Scott said the pandemic has “certainly contributed to these deaths,” but she noted that the increases became apparent in the first three months of the year before the disease was widespread locally.

Other contributing factors, she said, included “polysubstance use,” meaning people using more than one type of drug. Fentanyl also continues to be a problem, she added, saying the deadly substance is showing up in other drugs, such as cocaine and counterfeit medications.

Looking forward, Raimondo said the data received by the state is discouraging, but she offered some optimism, saying, “it’s within our control to change the trajectory.”

“We all need to adjust our behavior,” she said.