Two dozen Rhode Islanders have been monitored for coronavirus illness

Coronavirus

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — About two dozen Rhode Islanders who recently traveled to China have been self-quarantined as they have monitored themselves for symptoms related to the coronavirus, state health officials revealed Thursday.

R.I. Health Department Director Nicole Alexander-Scott announced the so-called “self-monitoring program” has been going on since Feb. 3, and 26 people have since voluntarily quarantined themselves at home.

The quarantine period lasts two weeks, and all but six people have completed the program. Three of the six people still participating are expected to finish on Thursday, according to health officials. The state to date has not confirmed any coronavirus cases in Rhode Island, although health officials added, “it is possible that Rhode Island could have a case in the near future.”

Alexander-Scott provided an update on preparedness efforts Thursday afternoon.

“Although the general level of risk for Rhode Islanders is still low and there have been no confirmed cases in our state, everyone can contribute to our preparedness work by taking simple, everyday steps to limit the spread of viruses,” Alexander-Scott said. “Those steps include washing your hands regularly, covering coughs and sneezes, and staying home when you are sick.”

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The health department partnered with federal officials earlier this month to start tracking people returning from China. Those coming from severely affected areas have been quarantined domestically near points of entry, while those without symptoms coming from other areas of China have been allowed to travel to their final destinations.

The 26 people who were allowed to travel back to Rhode Island were instructed “to not attend work or school, and to avoid public places and gatherings for 14 days,” according to health officials.

The new information comes a day after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first possible instance of community spread, meaning the source of infection is unknown. The case was discovered in northern California.

In Massachusetts, more than 600 residents who recently traveled to China have voluntarily quarantined themselves at home, and at least 377 people so far have completed the quarantine without falling ill, state health officials told reporters on Wednesday. The rest are still being monitored.  

Bay State officials earlier this month reported a man in his 20s had contracted the illness, marking the first confirmed case in Massachusetts. The UMass Boston student had recently returned from Wuhan, China, which is widely considered the epicenter of the fast-spreading virus.

The Chinese government in recent months has implemented aggressive quarantine strategies, which has helped slow the growth rate of new cases in China. But the illness has nonetheless begun spreading more quickly elsewhere around the globe. To date, John Hopkins reports roughly 82,500 confirmed cases worldwide with 95% of them happening in China. About 2,810 people have died from the illness.

“The fact this virus has caused illness – including illness resulting in death, and sustained person-to-person spread is concerning,” CDC spokesperson Benjamin Haynes told reporters during a briefing this week. “These factors meet two of the criteria of the pandemic. The world moves closer towards meeting the third criteria: worldwide spread of the new virus.”

Federal health officials have already implemented containment strategies to try and detect, track and isolate cases, and the United States has restricted some international travel into the country. Travel notices are changing almost daily, and federal officials are repatriating citizens from high-risk areas. But Haynes admits there’s only so much that can be done.

“To date, our containment strategies have been largely successful,” he said. “But as more and more countries experience community spread, successful containment at our borders becomes harder and harder.”

The CDC warnings come at the same time President Donald Trump has repeatedly downplayed the dangers of an outbreak in the United States. The first-term president on Wednesday named Vice President Mike Pence to coordinate the country’s response to the illness, which Trump claims has been stalled thanks to his decision to stop flights from China.

Trump has accused media outlets of making the spreading illness look worse than it is in reality, even as CDC officials have warned it will likely have a significant impact on peoples’ lives.

But the Democrats in Rhode Island’s federal delegation have argued Trump’s response is insufficient. Democratic U.S. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse have called for $8.5 billion in funding to address coronavirus, including $3.1 billion in immediate emergency funding — more than the $2.5 billion Trump has requested.

In a noontime speech Thursday on the House floor, Democratic Congressman David Cicilline characterized Trump’s response so far as “a disaster,” and said House Democrats plan to pass “a strong, strategic funding package that fully addresses the scale and seriousness of this public health crisis.”

The stock market, meanwhile, was edging near a correction midday Thursday, fueled largely by the global disruption caused by the virus. If reached, the six-day decline of 10% would represent the fastest slide into a correction since the global financial crisis in 2008, which ultimately led into the start of the Great Recession.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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