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11 travelers test positive at RI airport, as hospitals brace for Thanksgiving fallout

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WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) – Eleven travelers tested positive for the coronavirus at T.F. Green Airport over the weekend, but national health experts warn infections from Thanksgiving gatherings aren’t likely to show up in any significant way for at least another week.

Rhode Island’s rapid-testing program, set up temporarily at the state’s flagship airport in Warwick, was designed to offer fliers a quick and convenient way to see if they carried the virus after traveling for the holiday.

On Saturday and Sunday, nearly 1,300 people took advantage of the free program and 11 tested positive, resulting in a positivity rate of less than 1%, according to health officials. By comparison, the statewide positivity rate totaled 9.2% Monday.

The low infection rate among fliers was welcomed amid heightened concerns that travel tied to the holiday could trigger a surge of new infections. But doctors across the country are skeptical about results from people who get tested too quickly after Thanksgiving.

The virus often goes through an incubation period that could last several days before any symptoms appear, and health officials have repeatedly warned that coronavirus tests are more accurate when patients are presenting symptoms.

“If you’re young — and gathered [for Thanksgiving] — you need to be tested about five to 10 days later,” White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said Sunday during an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Despite the waiting period, Birx still stressed the importance of getting tested and echoed other top health officials, saying that people who gathered during Thanksgiving needed to be extra careful about not interacting with other people – especially high-risk groups, such as older adults.

“You need to assume that you’re infected,” Birx said.

Despite widespread warnings against traveling and gathering for Thanksgiving, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration reported more than 1 million people nationwide passed through airports the day before the holiday, marking the highest level since mid-March.

In Rhode Island, about 3,500 passengers arrived at T.F. Green over the weekend, according to airport spokesperson John Goodman, meaning roughly 37% participated in the state’s rapid-testing program. The R.I. Department of Health reported Tuesday another three people tested positive on Monday out of 394 tests administered. The program was slated to end Monday.

Whether those other passengers will end up getting tested later isn’t clear, but groups that track coronavirus data nationally, including the influential COVID Tracking Project, don’t expect case increases from Thanksgiving exposure to start showing up until the second week of December.

“Succeeding waves of infections from holiday gatherings will roll in for weeks,” the nonprofit’s managing editor Erin Kissane wrote in a blog post ahead of Thanksgiving.

“From what we’ve seen so far, the virus can spread with remarkable speed, but there are delays at every step in tracing and reporting its spread: It takes time to get tested, time to get the report a result, time to trace close contacts – and to start the process over again with a new circle of exposure,” Kissane added.

As a result, the nonprofit is urging people to focus on hospitalization data over the next couple weeks as a more reliable indicator of what’s happening with the pandemic in any specific area. In Rhode Island, the numbers paint a dreary picture.  

The state reported 381 people were in the hospital last Monday with the virus, marking the highest one-day total since the pandemic started. On Monday afternoon a field hospital in Cranston run by Care New England started accepting patients, while Lifespan said its field hospital at the R.I. Convention Center in Providence would start accepting patients on Tuesday.

Daily hospital admissions have regularly exceeded levels seen during the spring in recent weeks, as more people with the virus are seeking emergency care — overwhelming a health care system that’s simultaneously trying to serve COVID-19 patients along with everyone else with health care needs.

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the school of public health at Brown University and a national expert on the pandemic, noted Monday an unusual decline in the nationwide rate of hospitalizations compared to new infections in recent weeks, saying the trend likely signals that hospitals are raising the bar of admission due to high demand and limited space.

“When hospitals get full, by definition you can’t hospitalize all the folks you’d like to hospitalize,” he tweeted Monday night. “And many who would benefit from hospitalization suffer because only the very sickest get a bed. Everyone else goes home.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is an investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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