Why RI leaders don’t know how long the COVID-19 shutdowns will last

Coronavirus

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Social distancing and closing parts of the economy will likely slow the spread of COVID-19 in Rhode Island. But state leaders say they can’t accurately project best- and worst-case scenarios related to the pandemic without more testing.

Gov. Gina Raimondo said Monday she would like to test between 600 and 800 Rhode Islanders per day, as more robust information could help health officials better identify and respond to the spread of the illness. South Korea has won worldwide praise for taking that approach.

But the rate of new testing in Rhode Island slowed in recent days, with only 13 new tests recorded on Sunday, complicating efforts to create hypothetical modeling that shows how long many people will have to stay home and out of work.  

“The path out of social distancing is much better testing and an ability to quarantine,” Raimondo said over the weekend. “I’m trying to move us to a place where we can do 600, 700, 800 tests a day, have rapid results and pinpoint folks who are positive and put them in a quarantine and then track them and make sure they stay in that quarantine.”

The state has already convened a group of epidemiologists from the R.I. Health Department and some of the higher education institutions to develop projections related to the outbreak, according to Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott. But until there’s a larger sample size of tests to study, Raimondo said they can’t say how many people could contract the disease, how long people must social distance and when businesses might reopen.  

“It’s premature to say because we have relatively few cases,” Raimondo said over the weekend. “It’s not that we’re withholding any information from the public, but I don’t want to give you anything that isn’t accurate.”

Between March 1 and Sunday, Rhode Island administered 1,231 tests for COVID-19, which is about 53 tests per day. The number of confirmed cases topped 100 for the first time on Monday. But after a surge in new tests about a week ago, the rate of new testing has slowed each day the state has issued new data.

Alexander-Scott said Monday every state is struggling to access testing materials – such as testing swabs – fast enough. The limited supply has forced Rhode Island leaders to prioritize who gets tested, focusing on people who are showing symptoms, have been hospitalized, have traveled abroad or live in a congregate setting such as a nursing home.

Many people who are sick, but don’t qualify, have been turned away from getting the test.

“This is a scenario that every state is in,” Alexander-Scott said.

But the need to test more people remains top of mind for state leaders; Raimondo says it’s No. 1 on her list of ways to get the economy reopened. Greater testing capacity would make quarantining efforts more effective, she said.

With better quarantining, health officials predict the spread will slow. When the outbreak is better under control, state officials said changes to the unprecedented rules on social gathering and work could change.

“That’s where we’re trying to move the system as quickly as possible,” Raimondo said.

It’s also one reason why the state fully activated the R.I. National Guard over the weekend, as public health officials said the militia will help with contact tracing — the process of tracking down every person who came into contact with a person with the disease.

The state has been asking hundreds of people to self-quarantine, but doesn’t have a good grasp on specific numbers, saying the current report of 2,750 is an approximation.  

“It can range,” Alexander-Scott said, adding that they need an “army of people” to help focus on the contract tracing and self-quarantining. “That will give us the highest yield in stopping this virus from spreading,” she said.

Raimondo on Monday said she’s hopeful that the state could start testing up to 800 Rhode Islanders by next week, as she continues to try and establish a more reliable supply chain of testing materials.

If the effort works out, the larger pool of data could go a long way toward helping Raimondo effort to make decisions based on science and data — and deliver on her mantra: “We need facts, not frenzy.”  

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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