PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Dan McKee said Tuesday more than 3,000 Rhode Islanders have died from COVID-19, saying he hopes the grim milestone serves as a “call to action” for people to take measures to protect themselves during the current surge of the virus.
“We’ve lost 3,000 mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, grandparents, friends, and neighbors who will be missed – especially during this holiday season,” McKee said. “This is a moment that we will not forget, and that I hope will serve as a call to action and will save countless more lives.”
He ordered Rhode Island flags to be flown at half staff until Wednesday night, and said the State House would be lit in blue and gold, the colors of the state flag, to honor the dead.
The R.I. Department of Health reported eight new deaths in its daily release of COVID data, for a total of 3,006. There were 887 new positive cases reported, with 280 COVID patients in the hospital. (While the number would appear to be a 50-person increase from Monday’s reported total of 230, the Health Department revised Monday’s data to show there were actually 289 people in the hospital.)
The governor’s regular news conference Tuesday came as Rhode Islanders scramble to get COVID-19 tests prior to Christmas, with long backlogs for PCR tests and a shortage of available rapid tests.
McKee said the state is doing about 20,000 tests a day, and noted that a new rapid test site opened at Chapel View in Cranston on Monday. He said the state is seeking another lab vendor to process PCR tests while the current vendor experiences an “equipment and staffing issue.”
“Staffing is one of the most challenging issues right now,” McKee said.
The state currently contracts with Dominion Diagnostics. Tom McCarthy, the deputy director of the Department of Health, declined to name the potential new lab due to ongoing negotiations.
“They’re flat out right now,” McCarthy said of Dominion. He said the equipment issues were resolved, but demand for testing rose simultaneously, causing a backlog and a need for more lab capacity.
McKee said the state has already distributed the 100,000 free at-home rapid tests he announced last week, and is expecting to get 1 million tests soon to distribute by the end of January. He said the tests will be distributed to Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns to give out to residents, and the state expects to hand out 1 million a month at least through March.
Asked for his message to families who can’t get their hands on a test prior to Christmas, McKee deferred to McCarthy.
“Obviously over the last couple weeks the outlook has changed significantly,” McCarthy said. “We want to make sure testing is as available and as accessible as possible, ahead of the holidays and in light of all things Omicron.”
He noted that layering multiple mitigation efforts — vaccination, boosters, testing, masks, etc — can help protect people ahead of the holidays.
Omicron on Monday became the dominant COVID strain in the U.S., though McCarthy said it is not yet at that level in Rhode Island.
State leaders are also planning to reopen two mass vaccination sites to get more boosters into arms, McCarthy said, likely at the R.I. Convention Center in Providence and the former Benny’s building in Middletown.
The existing vaccination sites in Cranston and East Providence will remain open at least until the end of December. (McCarthy said the state was negotiating with property owners for extensions.)
The governor’s office announced community based COVID-19 vaccination clinics will be held Wednesday, December 22 in Little Compton and Providence. Registration is recommended for these clinics. To register, visit C19VaccineRI.org and click “Upcoming Community Vaccination Clinics.”
The governor’s new COVID-19 regulations went into effect on Monday, requiring most establishments and offices to require masks or proof of vaccination for patrons and employees.
Masks are required at indoor establishments with a capacity of 250 or more, regardless of vaccination status. At smaller venues, it is up to each individual establishment if they want universal masking or to ask for proof of vaccination.
The new requirements will be “reevaluated” before Jan. 18, McKee said.