PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The latest COVID-19 data from Rhode Island triggered a recommendation that most people should wear high-quality masks in indoor public settings.

On Thursday, the R.I. Department of Health announced that Bristol, Kent, Providence and Washington counties are now at the “high” community alert level, while Newport County remains in the “medium” category.

The community levels are based on case rates, hospital admissions and hospital capacity, and are updated weekly to indicate if a community’s risk is low, medium or high.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people in counties designated as “high” are recommended to wear masks in indoor public settings, get tested when experiencing symptoms, and stay up to date with vaccinations.

Dr. Philip Chan, a consultant medical director with the Health Department, said the new risk level was not unexpected.

Health Department data shows COVID-19 infections in Rhode Island have been rising steadily for four weeks, while hospitalizations have been increasing for seven straight weeks.

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Despite the rise in cases and hospitalizations, the Health Department said the numbers are still considerably lower than they have been at previous points in the pandemic.

“We’re in a much, much, much better place,” Chan said. “We have adequate treatments. We have good vaccine supplies. COVID is now a critical preventable disease.”

Courtesy: RI Department of Health

Dr. Chan said the Health Department anticipates that cases will level off and decrease in the coming weeks, but also said that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t still take precautions.

“At this time, we are aligned with the CDC guidance and certainly agree that that when our community levels are high like they are now, is that people should mask when they’re indoors,” Chan said.

“But we’re not going to be mandating it,” he added, noting it is still a personal choice to mask up.

In addition to wearing a mask, the Health Department is reminding people about other tools to protect against COVID-19 including vaccination, ventilation, screening for symptoms, testing, isolating when sick, and asking your health care provider about treatment after testing positive.

On Friday, the Health Department reported 621 new positive cases, plus one new COVID-19-related death. Data shows 94 people are currently hospitalized with the virus, and fewer than five people are on ventilators or in the intensive care unit.

What about flu season?

According to the Rhode Island Weekly Influenza Surveillance Update for the week of May 1–7, the current activity level of influenza-like illness in Rhode Island is minimal.

“I think the good news is that all the measures that we take to prevent COVID will prevent flu as well. But it does continue to circulate in the state,” Chan said.

Since Oct. 3, 2021, Health Department data shows there have been 477 positive influenza specimens at the state health laboratories. The Health Department noted that any specimen submitted for influenza testing is tested for COVID-19 as well.

Additionally, health officials have reported 213 influenza-associated hospitalizations and two influenza-associated deaths since Oct. 3.

Should we be concerned about monkeypox?

Earlier this week, health officials in Massachusetts reported a rare case of monkeypox.

The Mass. Department of Public Health (DPH) said a man who recently returned from a trip to Canada tested positive for the virus. At the time, health officials said the man was hospitalized, but in good condition.

A small number of confirmed or suspected cases have been reported this month in the United Kingdom, Portugal and Spain. New York City public health officials said Thursday they’re also investigating a potential case of monkeypox.

Dr. Chan stressed the disease is rare and typically limited to Africa. Cases in the U.S. and elsewhere are usually linked to travel there.

“No need for the public to worry in general,” he added. “We’re watching it closely, the CDC is watching it.”