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RI is only state doing enough tests to safely reopen, Harvard experts suggest

Coronavirus

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island is the only state conducting enough coronavirus tests right now to safely reopen the economy, according to new guidance from researchers at Harvard University.

The Harvard estimates, published by The New York Times, say states should be administering a minimum of 152 tests a day per 100,000 residents in order to have enough data to detect whether the virus is spreading and who has contracted it.

Rhode Island was conducting an average of 185 tests per 100,000 residents during the week ended April 15, making it the only state that had surpassed the minimum recommended by the experts at Harvard, according to The Times. Massachusetts was well below the threshold, at 92 daily tests per 100,000 people, while the country as a whole was even lower.

Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute and incoming dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, told the newspaper the rate of testing is a key metric “because the fundamental element of keeping our economy open is making sure you’re identifying as many infected people as possible and isolating them.”

After initially lagging the rest of New England on testing capacity, Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration has rapidly pushed Rhode Island into the top tier this month. That has helped to sharply lower the number of hospital beds expected to be needed when the outbreak peaks.

The R.I. Health Department reported Saturday that 32,826 Rhode Islanders have been tested for coronavirus since March 1, including over 2,000 new tests done since noon Friday.

About 15% of the tests newly reported on Saturday came back positive for the virus. Those who test positive are contacted by the Health Department, which then tracks down others who have been in contact with the sick individual.

“We are at a place now where we’re testing over 2,000 people a day, pretty much the highest rate in America of any state,” Raimondo said Saturday at her daily coronavirus briefing, adding that she thinks “many more” tests will be needed to safely began lifting restrictions on economic activity.

A key moment was April 6, when CVS Health opened one of its first two coronavirus rapid-testing sites in the country at Twin River Casino’s parking lot in Lincoln, not far from CVS headquarters in Woonsocket. The governor called it “a game-changer” that instantly doubled Rhode Island’s daily test capacity. The National Guard has been doing tests at other sites, as well.

Raimondo has said she still wants to add mobile testing as well as more options that will ensure minority communities are tested. The Health Department estimates Hispanics make up nearly half of all COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island so far.

“I am fully aware that nothing we are doing is perfect or is really enough,” Raimondo said Saturday. “We’re trying our best. Every day we get better. We’re trying to do more and better testing in inner cities.”

Jha, the incoming Brown dean, envisions eventually having ubiquitous testing nationwide.

“I want to be able to identify everybody who is even mildly symptomatic,” he told The Times. “So when I wake up one morning and have a sore throat and a fever, I should be able to go get tested. And then I want to be able to test all of my contacts if I turn out to be positive, so that I can do the test, trace and isolate strategy that’s so critical to allowing us to open up and stay open.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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