PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The state’s top health official is urging people to take preventative actions to help thwart the spread of the novel coronavirus, which she admits could be more widespread in Rhode Island than currently known.
Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott briefed reporters during a conference call Monday morning, revealing the state has tested only four people for the illness also known as COVID-19, which is quickly spreading across the globe.
The new information came a day after the first two presumptive confirmed cases of the illness in Rhode Island. The state is currently testing a third person and has monitored at least 66 people who have recently traveled to affected areas, but Gov. Gina Raimondo said the risk to Rhode Islanders is still “very low.”
“We knew this was coming and we’re prepared,” Raimondo told reporters Monday morning. “We weren’t at all surprised. We’ve been preparing for weeks. And secondly, I would say our systems are working.”
When asked whether the limited testing might mean the illness is spreading across communities without health officials knowing about it, Alexander-Scott told reporters, “That’s an understood possibility.”
“We certainly want to do the best we can and be able to assess, but similar to flu season now we are not testing every single flu case that occurs,” Alexander-Scott said. “We are encouraging people to have the tools they need to care for themselves, and the key to limiting the spread of illness is to if you have mild symptoms and can recover at home, to stay at home. It’s OK if we aren’t counting that, but it’s more important to help limit other people from getting infected if we can.”
The first person who tested positive for the illness, a man in his 40s, is in stable condition at an undisclosed hospital in Rhode Island, according to Alexander-Scott.
The second confirmed case, a teenager, is recovering and remains at home with mild symptoms. The teen had been in school for three days before leaving school sick last Thursday, a spokesperson for the Health Department said.
The spokesperson said they’ve identified those who had prolonged face-to-face contact with her during that time period. Those people are now at home self-quarantining.
The third person, a woman in her 30s, is also at home with mild symptoms, though her results are still pending and should be released Tuesday.
The fourth test administered by the state came back negative, according to a spokesperson.
The confirmed cases are deemed “presumptive” until receiving final confirmation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
State health officials said all three patients were on the same school trip coordinated by St. Raphael Academy from Feb. 14 to 22. The trip included travel in Italy, where an outbreak of coronavirus is present.
Alexander-Scott said outreach to anyone who came into contact with the three patients is ongoing and added direct contacts of the two confirmed people and the one showing symptoms will be asked to self-monitor for the illness at home for 14 days, with public health supervision.
In addition to the three patients, all other travelers on the trip — who Alexander-Scott said were mostly students — have been asked to self-monitor at home for 14 days, with public health supervision.
Health officials said the state continues to try and complete “contact-tracing” with anyone who may have been on the same return-flight from Europe. Alexander-Scott said this is “a true source of public health in action.”
Health officials said contacts of a contact are considered “low-risk” for coronavirus, and the process to identify additional contacts has been aggressive.
“The science continues to evolve and what we know about this virus is subject to change,” said health department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken in an email. “However, the latest guidance from CDC is that risk of asymptomatic transmission is very low. (The main way the virus spreads is through respiratory droplets expelled by someone who is coughing.) If someone is not exhibiting any symptoms there is no need to change your daily routine.”
The third patient with results pending was identified as a staff member at Achievement First Academy, which will be closed for two days due to cleaning.
St. Raphael Academy announced at first it would close for two days, but later changed its course of action upon learning of the second presumptive positive results on Sunday. The academy is now closed for the remainder of the week.
Alexander-Scott said the Health Department is working closely with R.I. Department of Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green.
Alexander-Scott told reporters while the travelers returned from their trip on Feb. 22, the health department found out “later in the week.”
St. Raphael officials disclosed Sunday they learned of a possible virus case on Feb. 26, four days after the group returned. They said they immediately alerted the Health Department “and have followed their guidance since then.”
A Health Department spokesperson confirmed that the federal government is only alerting states about travelers who return from China, not Italy or other areas where the illness is prevalent.
Cox Communications tells Eyewitness News their West Warwick facility was closed Monday after learning a family member of one of its employees tested positive for the virus. A spokesperson for the company said the facility will be deep cleaned and is expected to reopen on Tuesday.
“Our employee is at home and is not showing any symptoms,” the spokesperson said. “The employee whose family member tested positive was not an employee who interacts directly with customers.”
Alexander-Scott noted the CDC has directed health officials to only test if someone has traveled to an affected area and developed symptoms, but if someone did not have symptoms, they could return to school or work while “monitoring closely” for any changes in their health.
The director said several hundred testing kits are currently available in Rhode Island. The Health Department’s State Health Laboratories is currently the only lab in the state to conduct this testing.
Alexander-Scott said once CDC officials receive the sample, final results take up to 48 hours.
Steph Machado contributed to this report.