PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – How well Rhode Islanders followed public health guidance during Thanksgiving could influence whether the current round of restrictions has to be extended after an initial two-week span, according to one of the nation’s top public health officials.
In an exclusive interview with 12 News on Friday, White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said Gov. Gina Raimondo’s latest shutdown orders — which state leaders are calling a “two-week pause” — will likely help tamp down infections.
But whether it will be safe after two weeks to open up certain parts of the economy again, or even to extend gathering sizes beyond the current single-household limit, could largely depend on the actions Rhode Islanders took even before the pause began Monday, Birx said.
“It really depends on what everyone did in Rhode Island … over Thanksgiving,” Birx said when asked whether two weeks of new restrictions is enough to turn around skyrocketing daily infections and growing coronavirus-related hospitalizations, which have triggered the opening of field hospitals in Cranston and Providence.
Raimondo announced the new restrictions ahead of the holiday, but said she decided not to implement them until this week in order to give people and businesses some time to prepare.
“If Rhode Islanders over Thanksgiving gathered together and took their masks off indoors, they spread the virus,” Birx said. “Really, if you want to ensure that Rhode Islanders live to get vaccinated – we, all together, need to change our behaviors.”
Rhode Island reported more than 1,400 new infections earlier this week, according to revised numbers released Friday, representing the largest single-day total since the pandemic started. More than 400 people with the virus are currently in the hospital, and the state is averaging nearly 55 new hospital admissions each day.
In most state-by-state comparisons, Rhode Island looks much worse than its neighbors in New England, especially when it comes to average daily infections per capita.
But Birx defended the state and its response strategy, saying Rhode Island doesn’t actually look much different to her than other Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states where people are beginning to move indoors amid colder weather.
She suggested the high infections rates are largely attributable to the state’s robust testing capacity, which she said is comparable to Massachusetts. (Bay State infection rates have been significantly lower than Rhode Island in recent weeks, but cases have recently begun to surge again there, hitting a new daily record increase of 6,477 on Thursday.)
“Rhode Island is really no different than any other place in the country where people have moved indoors, brought the virus with them because many people are asymptomatic, so the virus is being spread to others,” Birx said. “Anytime you take your mask off indoors is a chance that you are spreading the virus and there’s a chance that you’re getting infected with the virus.”
The pandemic is hitting its worst levels in Rhode Island at the same time that highly effective vaccines are on the horizon. As 12 News first reported Thursday, state leaders expect to receive nearly 30,000 doses of vaccines from both Pfizer and Moderna by the end of the year – pending final approval by the FDA.
Yet Birx echoed other public health experts in emphasizing that the vaccines don’t represent a silver bullet, and that it will still be a while before most of the country can get immunized.
Birx said federal and state officials will first prioritize vaccinating health care workers and people living in congregate care facilities, such as nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.
Next will come what Birx described as “vulnerable Americans,” including people who are immunocompromised or with underlying health conditions. “The Americans that we know are more likely to be hospitalized and more likely to have serious illnesses and actually succumb to this virus,” she explained. “There’s about 100 million of those Americans.”
“That means the rest of us have to step back and allow those individuals to be immunized and still be doing all of our protection pieces for each other,” she added. “Once they are immunized, then the average American that doesn’t have these high-risk factors will be able to get immunized.”
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So, how quickly can all of that happen?
Birx lauded Raimondo’s message this week that Rhode Islanders should expect a tough winter and spring to be followed by a great summer that somewhat resembles life before COVID-19. If most Americans can get immunized over the spring and summer, Birx was optimistic schools could start returning to normal next fall.
But until those safer times come, she warned, Rhode Islanders and other Americans should expect more of the same: keeping distance from one another, wearing masks and not gathering.
We really need to “save as many Americans as we can so that they can get vaccinated,” she said.