Nesi’s Notes: May 30

Ted Nesi
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Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column for WPRI.com – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com and follow @tednesi on Twitter.

1. Three weeks after Rhode Island began reopening its economy, much of the data on coronavirus is hopeful: new cases keep declining, hospitalizations are down, fewer people are on life support. But all that makes another metric stand out like a sore thumb: deaths. So far this month 362 Rhode Islanders have died after contracting COVID-19, doubling the state’s death toll, with 58 succumbing just in the past week. The vast majority of the deaths have been linked to nursing homes or assisted living centers, and stabilizing the situation in those facilities is proving difficult. “It’s like a perfect storm,” Governor Raimondo said Thursday, one day after the House GOP called for a hearing on the matter. “It’s just really hard to control it.” The problem isn’t isolated to Rhode Island — it’s a challenge across the Northeast, with the death rate even higher at nursing homes across the border in Massachusetts and Connecticut. When coronavirus first struck, much of the initial focus nationwide was on readying hospitals for a surge of COVID-19 patients. But in hindsight it appears as much if not more attention should have been paid to how the virus threatened elderly and frail people living in congregate care. Or as one nursing-home executive in Massachusetts told CommonWealth Magazine, using a sports metaphor, “The state was guarding the wrong man early on.” Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said she is starting to see positive signs, with cyclical testing of nursing home residents and staff showing a decline in cases. But Raimondo thinks the virus could be a broader wake-up call about long-term care in Rhode Island, which ranks third-highest in the country for the share of older adults in nursing homes. “I think what we need to start asking ourselves is, long term, is it it the healthiest way to take care of our elderly loved ones to put them in congregate care settings?” she said. “Or is it time to get serious about investing in more in-home care supports so that — God forbid — next time this comes around, we’re not as vulnerable?”

2. Jim Nyberg of LeadingAge RI, which represents Rhode Island’s nonprofit nursing homes and other long-term care providers, suggests the state’s leadership on testing is actually contributing to its alarmingly high rate of nursing home deaths. It “is more a function of our Health Department conducting early and rigorous testing of long-term care facilities from the outset coupled with transparent public reporting,” Nyberg told me in an email. “If a resident had symptoms, the department was quick to conduct testing. That was not the case in other states.” Put another way, Rhode Island is testing enough to actually know how many of its nursing home deaths are linked to COVID-19 and is making that data public. In New York, by contrast, Nyberg’s counterpart has publicly described the state’s nursing home data as “garbage.”

3. Six doctors who are part of the New England Geriatrics Network have a new piece in Health Affairs about how to reduce COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes, including some policies that Rhode Island and Massachusetts have already begun to implement. The article, which describes nursing homes as “a hidden and frequently forgotten part of our health care system,” is well worth a read.

4. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Eli Sherman: “With an estimated $900 million budget hole in the current and next fiscal years, Rhode Island leaders are keeping their fingers crossed that Congress will soon show up with a bucket of cash. Otherwise, expect some uncomfortable conversations in the coming weeks about tax hikes or deep spending cuts. General Assembly leaders and Governor Raimondo are still focused on getting more federal funding, so it’s tough to predict their future course of action. But the man who helped Raimondo craft all of her previous state budgets offered some advice this week. ‘When you’re in a hole, you have to stop digging,’ said RIPEC executive director Michael DiBiase, who recently departed as Raimondo’s Department of Administration director, during a panel discussion hosted by Bryant University. ‘We need to bring our spending under control,’ he said, noting that most of the state’s top officeholders don’t know what it’s like to tax and spend during times of austerity. ‘We haven’t had to do that for a while,’ he said, adding that even if the federal money is made available, the state shouldn’t increase spending this year because the federal assistance will only be there for one year, while the economic fallout from COVID-19 could be long lasting. As for keeping public employees employed, DiBiase said that shouldn’t be a high priority when it comes to budget decisions, especially ‘while there are so many other people who have lost their jobs.'”

5. Tim White looks at the flood of requests for compassionate release that have been coming into federal court in Rhode Island. “At times, you feel like you’re playing God, and that is not a pleasant place for judges to be,” says Chief Judge Jack McConnell.

6. The death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer now indicted for murder has resonated across the nation, including in Rhode Island. “It’s hard to watch that video. I watched the whole thing to the end,” Governor Raimondo said Friday. “My own personal view is it is a wake-up call for all of us, in whatever walk of life we’re in — if you’re a governor you can do certain things, if you’re just a citizen you do other things — it’s on you to do what you can do to stop discrimination and racism in all of its very ugly forms.” Attorney General Neronha had a similar reaction. “The law is pretty clear, that when there’s no need to use force you don’t use it, and you certainly don’t use excessive force,” Neronha said on this week’s Newsmakers. “It goes without saying that that video is incredibly concerning and distrubing.” Yet racism is not just a problem far away. Jennifer Rourke, a Warwick Democrat who is challening Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey in the September primary, reports she was the target of racist abuse during a virtual meeting on Thursday evening, including messages that suggested she “Get Lynched.” Rourke told my colleague Rob Nesbitt on Friday, “Personally, I’m numb. … I have never in my life had anyone ever say that to me.” McCaffrey tweeted that he was “appalled and saddened” by the episode, writing, “Be better, RI. Diversity brings us strength.”

7. Governor Raimondo has been getting some national buzz as a potential VP pick for Joe Biden, thanks in part to a write-up from Washington Post columnist George F. Will and a tweet from Fox Business Network’s Charlie Gasparino. So I asked the governor at Friday’s daily briefing whether she’s had any kind of outreach or contact from Biden’s campaign to discuss a vetting process. “No,” she said. “And let me just say this. I’m spending zero time on politics right now. … I realize some folks are on the ballot this year and I wish them all well, and I’m a huge supporter of Vice President Biden, but I am seven days a week doing what I’m doing.” Veepstakes aside, though, if Biden were to win the White House he’d have quite a few other plum assignments to hand out to fellow Democrats — and Raimondo is sure to figure in Cabinet appointee speculation.

8. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Steph Machado: “With budgets in flux due to the pandemic, layoff notices are going out in some Rhode Island school districts ahead of the June 1 deadline set by state law. That includes East Providence, where 105 employees will get notices, though — like in most communities– officials there hope to ultimately rescind them. The situation is murkier in Providence: while spokesperson Laura Hart says no notices will go out to teachers by Monday, the district’s budget-writers have included possible layoffs and furloughs as part of a ‘scenario 2’ budget that envisions nearly $4 million worth of cuts and is increasingly described as the more likely spending plan. And officials won’t say if the state intervention in the district under the Crowley Act means layoffs could come after the June 1 deadline. Providence Teachers Union president Maribeth Calabro argues that would be ‘unfair to teachers,’ who believe the deadline is Monday and are therefore looking forward to a ‘collective sigh of relief’ if layoff notices don’t come. Meanwhile, Calabro and state officials have been meeting twice a week to negotiate a new teachers contract, and Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green told me Thursday the two sides are still ‘on different pages.’ Prior to the pandemic, the big news out of Providence schools this spring should have been the Turnaround Plan, which Infante-Green says is in the final ‘editing’ phase and will be released soon. We already know it includes a multimillion-dollar new curriculum by American Reading Company, but it’s safe to say school leaders had originally been counting on their usual increase to school funding in order to invest in improvements. So does Infante-Green anticipate layoffs in Providence to plug the hole? ‘I don’t know,’ she told me. ‘It’s all on the table.'”

9. The Rhode Island Senate is now up to four Democratic incumbents retiring this year with the announcements that North Kingstown’s Jim Sheehan and Pawtucket’s Donna Nesselbush will both be retiring rather than run again in November. They join Warwick’s Erin Lynch Prata, who is vying for the vacant R.I. Supreme Court seat, and West Warwick’s Adam Satchell. So far, though, none of the House’s 75 members has announced plans to retire.

10. Patrick Rhone says you need to print out any writing you want to save: “Yes. Print. On paper. Why? Because, unlike your app, paper has a proven track record for lasting thousands of years if the conditions are right.”

11. No time machine? No problem. Colorization master Marina Amaral transports you there.

12. Why one Cape Cod chef is terrified about the summer tourist season.

13. Heather Lanier argues right now we all just need to surrender to uncertainty.

14. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersAG Neronha. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. Podcast lovers, you can subscribe to both our weekend shows on iTunes — get the Newsmakers podcast here and the Executive Suite podcast here — and radio listeners can catch them back-to-back Sundays at 6 p.m. on WPRO-AM 630 and WEAN-FM 99.7. See you back here next Saturday morning.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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