1. As recently as Thanksgiving, it was probably unfathomable for most Rhode Islanders that the state was just weeks away from reporting over 5,000 COVID-19 cases a day. But Black Friday was the day most of us first learned about the omicron variant, and the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet has since become ubiquitous. The good news: experts generally agree omicron is less deadly than delta, which is the reason the explosion of cases hasn’t led to the same level of severe illness and death we would have expected based on last winter. If cases were converting into hospitalizations at last year’s rate, there would be over 1,800 Rhode Islanders hospitalized with COVID-19 right now, rather than a bit more than 400. None of that is to downplay the seriousness of the current circumstance. Staffing shortages have hospital emergency departments feeling under siege, with doctors warning there is almost no slack in the system. The situation raises short-term and long-term questions. In the short term, how much higher will hospitalizations go before omicron peaks, and how will the hospital system fare? Governor McKee agreed to remobilize the National Guard this week to assist with staffing, a step some had been urging for weeks, and he emphasized to reporters that any crisis in the hospital system was more due to the staffing issue than the virus. The longer-term question: how will voters judge McKee’s handling of the current surge? Frustration is high at the moment, particularly around testing, and the buck stops with the governor. His rivals have stepped up their criticism, seizing on Brian Amaral’s Globe report about a confidential projection McKee received before Thanksgiving forecasting a rise in cases. McKee’s office points out he’d issued a new executive order on COVID a few days earlier, and says the decision to ramp down mass testing and vaccination sites had been made well before that. Those nuances may not make it into his challengers’ attack ads. But the primary is still eight months away, and voters’ memories can be short — if the situation improves quickly, it could be old news by September.
2. A few good links on COVID in Rhode Island … Eli Sherman looks at why hospitalizations have become a more important metric than cases … the Health Department tells me omicron now makes up an estimated 45% of cases … and the department’s medical director Dr. Jim McDonald says he thinks the state will be “in a much better place” on COVID by St. Patrick’s Day.
3. Rhode Island lawmakers opened the year on Tuesday by giving Governor McKee one win and two losses — but the win was big enough that he probably didn’t mind the two losses too much. McKee was given authorization to spend $119 million on programs for small businesses, services for children, housing development and other priorities. That gives the governor a chance to address some immediate needs this winter, and politically it means he can cut ribbons and hand out relief money in the months leading up to the September primary. Where lawmakers didn’t go along with McKee was on two bills he vetoed, overriding him on auto-body repairs and a short-term rentals registry; they were the first veto override votes since 2012, when Lincoln Chafee had rejected a bill related to sewers in Warwick. House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio then used their opening speeches to lay out an election-year policy agenda that includes marijuana legalization and stabilizing the state’s health care system in the wake of the pandemic.
4. The anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack was a reminder of the shocking events of that day as well as the persistence of the nation’s political divide. U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is among those who want to see a robust investigation, not only by the House Select Committee but also the Department of Justice. “So far what the Department of Justice has done is basically to prosecute trespassers — the people who broke into the building — and in some cases they’ve added a conspiracy count because they broke into the building in a little group. But they haven’t gone upstream,” Whitehouse said on this week’s Newsmakers. However, he said he was reassured by AG Merrick Garland’s speech this week indicating the department is casting a wider net than that. A recent CBS News poll suggests strong majority support for examining the attack, with 67% of Americans agreeing that Congress should investigate. But the same poll found striking differences between the two parties on “major” threats to democracy; 89% of Democrats cite the potential for political violence as a major threat, versus 48% of Republicans, whereas 79% of Republicans but only 18% of Democrats cite people voting illegally. How, then, does Whitehouse view the balance between investigating Jan. 6 and seeking to encourage national unity? “It’s a really good question. And it’s a hard one,” Whitehouse said. “And it’s one that I live every day with my colleagues in the Senate. I think there are some touchstones as we do this, and I think one of those touchstones is, telling the truth. If one party is telling the truth and the other party is gaslighting, and you compromise at something that is less than the truth, then you’re not doing anyone a real service.”
5. Three quick hits from Sheldon Whitehouse … he thinks it’s “a tossup” whether Democrats hold the Senate this November … he’s planning to run for re-election in 2024 … and he’ll become a grandfather for the first time next month; his daughter is expecting a baby girl.
6. The candidates for governor will file their fourth-quarter fundraising reports at the end of this month, and observers will be paying close attention to the number reported by former CVS executive Helena Foulkes. So far, Foulkes isn’t saying how much she raised. “I won’t be able to share that number yet, but I think people will be excited about it,” Foulkes told Kim Kalunian during an interview Friday on 12 News at 4. She added, “I’m working really hard in the last few months reaching out and finding as many people and it’s gone quite well.” She also acknowledged she plans to use some of her own ample resources to fund her campaign. “I had said from the beginning I would make some personal contributions,” she said. Foulkes also used the interview to lay out her major priorities as a gubernatorial candidate and renew her criticism of the incumbent’s coronavirus response — you can watch the full Q&A here.
7. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Steph Machado: “John Igliozzi has spent nearly a quarter-century representing Ward 7 on the Providence City Council, but the term-limited Silver Lake Democrat now has his eye on higher office. The council president told me on our latest episode of Pulse of Providence that he’s looking to run for statewide office this fall and will make an announcement in the ‘near future.’ (He wouldn’t say which office.) In the meantime, Igliozzi has a lot he wants to accomplish in his final year on the council, where he holds plenty of power as the president. He’s chairing the once-per-decade Charter Review Commission (he appointed himself), which will come up with changes to the Home Rule Charter for voters to approve or reject in November. He already says he’s interested in expanding the size of the council to include at-large seats in addition to the 15 ward seats, which he says could help feed a council-to-mayor pipeline. Also on the docket for the start of 2022 is a deep-dive into Mayor Elorza’s proposal to spend $124 million worth of American Rescue Plan funds, which was submitted this week. Igliozzi says he’s on board with Elorza’s plan to spend more than 20% of the money on housing and homelessness, but he wants to increase the amount set aside to help balance future budgets, and expressed skepticism about the plan to provide $10 million for unspecified reparations. Igliozzi and Elorza frequently clash on policy, so it wasn’t a surprise that he’s slamming the mayor’s new vaccine mandate, calling it ‘reckless’ to fire dozens of police officers if they don’t agree to get the shot by next Friday. For much more of our conversation, you can watch the full episode of Pulse of Providence online now or listen to it wherever you get your podcasts.”
8. The latest on the North Kingstown School Department scandal: Tim White and Eli Sherman report the U.S. attorney’s office has now opened a civil investigation, on top of the criminal investigation already underway by the attorney general.
9. Rhode Island’s biggest hospitals are in the headlines a lot these days as they grapple with the latest COVID wave. But they’re about to be in the headlines for another reason: big decisions are coming on the effort to merge Lifespan and Care New England into one organization. CNE CEO Jim Fanale told bondholders this week he expects the Federal Trade Commission will decide whether to allow the merger by the end of February, with the state’s deadline following soon after in mid-March. The FTC decision is a crucial one — the agency is weighing whether it should sue to block the merger or let it go forward, no small decision when the new organization would control roughly 80% of hospital services in Rhode Island. If the FTC gives its OK, the AG and Department of Health then have the option to approve, reject or approve with conditions. But if the FTC moves to block the merger, that may not be the end of the story — it could revive discussions about whether the hospital groups can obtain a so-called “COPA” from the General Assembly that gives lawmakers’ blessing to the deal as a public necessity.
10. East Providence officials made an attention-grabbing announcement Friday afternoon: the city’s public libraries are no longer levying fines for overdue books, effective immediately. Mayor Bob DaSilva says the same policy is now in place in nearly every community in Rhode Island. “Over the years, libraries have learned that late fines are ineffective and that they discourage or stop people from using the library,” EP officials said in a news release. “Eliminating fines ensures that everyone in the community has equal access to library books, materials, and services.” DaSilva added, “Often it is the people who need the library most who stay away because of fines.” Of course, patrons are still being asked to return their books on time. (Also worth considering: as more people borrow e-books, libraries no longer need to depend on you to bring the book back — they deactivate it on your device and put it back in circulation.)
11. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Senator Whitehouse. Watch Sunday at 5:30 a.m. on WPRI 12 or 10 a.m. on Fox Providence, or listen on the radio Sundays at 6 p.m. on WPRO. You can also subscribe to Newsmakers as a podcast on iTunes. See you back here next Saturday.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram