Raimondo says new school year off to ‘excellent’ start; urges vigilance as test positivity ticks up

Coronavirus

Key takeaways from this week’s COVID-19 briefing:

  • Growing share of tests coming back positive
  • Gov, officials insist K-12 school year on track
  • 19 people tied to RI schools test positive so far
  • Eligibility expands for business, worker grants
  • “Halloween has to go on,” Raimondo says

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Gina Raimondo warned Rhode Islanders on Wednesday that the state is seeing a small uptick in the share of coronavirus tests coming back positive, while arguing the school year has gotten off to an unusual but largely successful start.

On Wednesday, the R.I. Department of Health reported 86 new positive cases and a daily positivity rate of 1.8%. At her weekly briefing, Raimondo called that “a very good number,” but also noted the state was regularly below 1% earlier this month.

“It’s not a reason for alarm,” she said. “However, it’s a constant reminder to every single Rhode Islander, we’re not out of the woods. The virus remains with us, and we cannot let our guard down.”

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Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said an analysis of recent COVID-19 cases showed workplaces “continue to be an area where we have room for improvement,” with more than half of recently infected workers acknowledging they had gone to work with symptoms.

Health officials also reported another three people have died after contracting COVID-19, bringing the state’s death toll to 1,081. Hospitalizations ticked up slightly to 84, with nine people in the ICU and five on ventilators.

Three days into the delayed start of school, Raimondo and Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green both sought to present an upbeat and optimistic picture of the situation. The majority of Rhode Island students — more than 100,000 — are doing in-person learning, according to Raimondo.

“By and large we’re having a great week, and we had an excellent return to school,” the governor said.

“The magnitude of this effort is impossible to overestimate, and we’re doing it,” she said. “It wasn’t perfect. We have to do better. We will get better every day. But I am incredibly proud of everybody who worked so hard to get these kids back to school.”

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Infante-Green added, “Everywhere I’ve gone, the energy has been high,” though she acknowledged “some bumps.”

Raimondo highlighted the school-specific testing and contact tracing programs the state has created in an effort to keep K-12 on track. She said 14 testing sites have been designated around the state so far for teachers, students and others tied to schools.

The school-specific sites have swabbed about 300 people so far, eight of whom tested positive, she said. They are 19 individuals tied to 18 schools who have tested positive, 12 students and seven staff members, officials said. Only nine of the 19 actually went to school, however.

“We will continue to see cases in schools, just as we’ve seen cases all summer long,” Raimondo said.

Two tests will be administered to students and school staff: a PCR test — considered most accurate –with lab results within 48 hours, and a rapid test with day-of results.

Pressed by reporters about safety and readiness concerns that continue to be expressed by some unions and parents, Raimondo insisted that the resources and expertise necessary to have children in their classrooms are available to districts. The newly created “education operations center,” or EdOC, has already gotten more than 100 calls and sent teams to about a dozen schools.

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The governor’s briefing included multiple updates on programs designed to support businesses and individuals affected by the pandemic.

The state is allocating $1 million to its Take It Outside RI campaign that urges businesses and other organizations to do as many activities as possible outdoors. Raimondo said the money will be made available to establishments that want to buy supplies which can help them operate outdoors, such as heat lamps for restaurants.

Applications are expected to be available later Wednesday at takeitoutsideri.com.

The $50 million Restore RI grant program is expanding eligibility to sole proprietors and other businesses with no employees, and lowering the revenue loss requirement from 50% to 30%, the governor said.

Only about $7 million has been distributed so far since the Restore RI program launched, according to Matt Sheaff, spokesperson for R.I. Commerce Corp.

Raimondo made another pitch for Back to Work RI, a recently created job training program that has 3,000 in 2020 hiring commitments from large companies such as Microsoft, CVS Health, Amazon and Infosys. Jobcase, a Cambridge-based company that has built a professional networking platform for those turned off by LinkedIn, has agreed to start drumming up interest.

Also addressing the unemployed, Raimondo said FEMA has approved a sixth week of $300 Lost Wages Assistance payments for Rhode Islanders, bringing the maximum amount an individual can receive to $1,800 if the person was unemployed for all six weeks. No additional funding will be available after the sixth week, she said federal officials have told her.

Looking ahead, Raimondo was asked whether she could foresee allowing even higher capacity limits for indoor dining at restaurants as the weather turns colder. She said she wouldn’t rule it out but was not yet ready to take that step.

“I’m always going to go as far as I can go to get more people back to work and businesses in business within the public health guidance,” she said.

On another question about what’s ahead, though, Raimondo was adamant if unspecific.

“Halloween has to go on, one way or another,” she said.

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