6 more COVID-19 deaths in RI; $600 unemployment bump coming next week

Coronavirus
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Key takeaways from Friday’s COVID-19 briefing:

  • 6 more deaths for total of 49
  • Five of six new deaths in nursing homes
  • $600 unemployment bump starting next week
  • 169 in hospital; 45 in ICU
  • Domestic violence on the rise

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Gina Raimondo on Friday announced six more people have died for a total of 49 COVID-19 related deaths in Rhode Island.

The governor also outlined current and future unemployment benefits available to Rhode Islanders, adding that people currently collecting Unemployment Insurance should expect to see an additional $600 added to benefit checks next week, as emergency federal funding starts to be disbursed.

“If you’re out of work, you can collect unemployment in one way or another,” Raimondo said. “Starting next week, there will be $600 more in your check.”

COVID-19 hospitalizations increased by nine to 169 and an additional 288 people have tested positive for a total of 2,015 since March 1, Raimondo added.

Five of the six people to die were residents of nursing homes and ranged in age from someone in their 60s to an individual in their 100s — marking the oldest death so far in Rhode Island.

The disease continues to disproportionately kill people in nursing homes, as 14 residents have died at Golden Crest Nursing Centre in North Providence, nine residents have died at Oak Hill in Pawtucket, four have died at Orchard View Manor in East Providence and two have died at Scalabrini Villa in North Kingstown.

The 29 deaths at these four homes represent 59% of the total deaths so far in Rhode Island.

“This virus is very transmission-able, and it’s very serious for older adults and people with underlying medical conditions,” Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said.

Alexander-Scott said there have also been several cases in group homes, as all congregate care represent places of concern from the perspective of public health officials.

In addition to harming people’s health, the pandemic has forced thousands out of work. The R.I. Department of Health on Friday provided a daily update of unemployment claims related to COVID-19, showing the total now exceeds 135,000 — which is about 13% of the state’s population.

“It’s like nothing we’ve ever lived through before,” Raimondo said.

Raimondo said the state has been inundated with claims and questions related to unemployment benefits, so she took some time to explain the different programs.

The federal government recently approved a $2.2 trillion rescue package with a provision that gives an additional $600 to everyone collecting a weekly check through Unemployment Insurance, or UI.

Raimondo said that money should start showing up for Rhode Islanders beginning next week, but urged patients if it takes a couple extra days.

The governor also said she’s also been advocating U.S. Congress to pass a similar $600 weekly benefit to people who must work during the crisis and are earning minimum wage.

Raimondo also highlighted a new federal program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA. Rhode Island became one of the first states to start accepting applications earlier this week, Raimondo said, and more than 16,000 claims have been filed, according to the DLT.

PUA benefits sole proprietors, gig workers, freelancers and independent contractors, as well as people who have not been laid off, but are nonetheless forced to stay home for specific reasons.

The qualifying factors are narrowly defined, Raimondo warned, saying it only includes people who have been ordered by a physician to stay at home or must stay home to care for loved ones who are home because of COVID-19 and cannot care for themselves.

“You’re going to have to go through a great deal of scrutiny to fit the criteria,” Raimondo said, adding it would take the longest time for those people to receive checks.

In an effort to boost the state’s response to unemployment claims, Raimondo signed an executive order allowing former DLT employees to come back to work without negatively impacting their pension benefits — as would normally be the case.

The order also exempts businesses from paying an increased Unemployment Insurance tax, which fluctuates based on how many employees are using the program.

“I fully recognize that I’m the one that has ordered you to close your business, so I don’t think it’s fair to punish you with higher unemployment insurance taxes,” Raimondo said.

Since an ever-growing number of people have been forced to stay at home, 911 calls related to domestic violence have been on the rise, Raimondo said. At the same time, hotline calls and shelter in-take numbers have declined.

The governor said she isn’t surprised by the trend, saying it’s a time of “great anxiety and tension for everybody,” and some people might think the shelters are not open.

She called on anyone who is a victim of domestic abuse to reach out confidentially to 1-800-494-8100, and reminded everyone that all domestic violence shelters are essential and remain open.

“I want you to reach out for help,” Raimondo said.

In addition to trying to reach more people who are home and need meals, the R.I. Public Transit Authority — or RIPTA — is now assisting with the food-assistance program Meals on Wheels.

The request for meals has increased by nearly five times the typical level, Raimondo said.

The governor also told people that RIPTA will now limit capacity on buses to 15 passengers, and everyone should be wearing masks of some type while riding on the buses. She thanked bus drivers for continuing to work every day.

In a call for action, Alexander-Scott said she’s read reports across the country of widespread littering of personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves. The behavior is harmful to the environment and waste-water infrastructure, she said.

“It should not happen in Rhode Island,” Alexander-Scott said, urging people to throw away the equipment appropriately, and not to flush disinfectant wipes down the toilet.

“They can cause a further health hazard by backing up sewage,” she added.

In a more positive note, Raimondo said data shows compliance with social distancing has improved in recent days. The effort, she said, is keeping people and their neighbors healthy, and she hoped that the trend would continue to improve — despite the upcoming weekend that includes Easter Sunday.

Churches will remain closed to in-person congregations, but services are expected to be broadcast to parishioners at home.

“Do not let up,” Raimondo said.

Looking forward, Raimondo said she’s trying to get Rhode Island to a place where it can start re-opening its economy, but she said large gatherings will not likely be allowed for a while.

The idea of a big wedding happening any time soon seemed unrealistic, she said, and for big music festivals — such as Newport Jazz — she couldn’t yet offer definitive guidance.

“It’s just too soon to tell,” she said.

Live Streaming Monday: Coronavirus Coverage

1 p.m. RI Gov. Gina Raimondo Briefing | 3:30 p.m. Gov. Charlie Baker briefing

Watch all daily coronavirus updates here on WPRI.com or on the WPRI 12 mobile app » Go here to watch CBS News Coverage»

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