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COVID-19 could peak in RI by mid-April, epidemiologists say

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – COVID-19 is projected to peak in mid-April and kill nearly 260 people in Rhode Island, according to a new forecast that Gov. Gina Ramondo said closely matches what state health officials are calculating internally.

The recently released University of Washington projections show that demand for hospital resources will reach the highest point on April 19 in Rhode Island. Daily deaths, meanwhile, will plateau at eight per day on April 15, according to the analysis.

Raimondo on Tuesday reported four new deaths and 59 hospitalizations because of COVID-19.

Asked by Target 12 about the University of Washington projections, she said they are close to state modeling being done at the R.I. Department of Health, adding the state “is very familiar” with the forecast and has been in touch with the university.

“That model is directionally correct in so far as those numbers are probably in the ballpark,” Raimondo said during her daily news briefing.

“Our model looks a little different,” she said. “Our model would suggest that the peak is further out, but also higher.”

Rhode Island leaders so far have not released specific details about their projections, claiming they need more data to more accurately populate the model. Raimondo said it would could take a few days or a week to release a state forecast.

Yet that hasn’t stopped other states and institutions from offering projections based on how the disease has spread in places with a greater volume of cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

University of Washington projects hospital resources needed to deal with COVID-19 in the United States will peak on April 15. Daily deaths will peak at 2,214 on April 14, and the public health crisis is projected to kill 83,967 people through Aug. 4 based on current modeling. In Massachusetts, the peak is likewise projected for April 15 and the disease could kill upward of 1,500 people.

Regardless of when Rhode Island reaches its peak, however, University of Washington predicts a somewhat alarming shortage of intensive care unit beds whenever it happens.

Based on average historical ICU bed use during mid-April in Rhode Island, the model calculates the state will need 80 more ICU beds than are typically available. (The shortage totals 652 ICU beds in Massachusetts.)

The school also estimates Rhode Island needs 97 invasive ventilators to meet demand, which is something that Raimondo has raised the alarm about for days. Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said Monday the state has 200 ventilators and is trying to get 600 more. The trend is especially concerning as COVID-19 hospitalizations have increased to 59 from four in one week.  

“I want to be very clear about this,” Raimondo said. “Right now in this country, we do not have enough ventilators to meet our needs. We do not have enough masks and respirators and goggles to meet our needs. In the state of Rhode Island, we do not have enough hospital beds. That’s a fact. It’s a brutal fact.”

Stephen Buka, professor of epidemiology at Brown University, lauded the University of Washington projections and said Rhode Island has done a good job in comparison to other parts of the country in responding quickly to the pandemic. He points to the first reported cases, which stemmed from a school trip to Italy that spurred state health officials to act early. The first case was reported publicly on March 1.

How much the University of Washington modeling changes in the coming weeks, however, will depend on human nature, Buka added.

“If people are following the guidance for isolation and social distancing, then I think those projections should be sound,” he said.

Brown has partnered with the state Health Department to develop state-based modeling, but referred all questions about it to the state. The Health Department, meanwhile, said forecasting remains a challenge because of limited testing.

“We are working to get those plans in place as soon as possible, given the unpredictability of how the virus is impacting different states,” Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken wrote in an email. “But in terms of forecasting specific dates, that is a little challenging to do with our testing limited to very specific high-risk populations.”

The state has also reached out to Johns Hopkins University for assistance, according to the governor.

Alexander-Scott said Tuesday the state is loosening its restrictions on who qualifies to receive a COVID-19 test in Rhode Island to include people over the age of 65 years with symptoms, people with underlying health conditions and workers involved in so-called “critical infrastructure,” such as police and firefighters.

The decision comes as the state has set a goal of administering roughly 1,000 test per day, which Raimondo remains optimistic could happen this week. (The state was recording fewer than half that amount per day last week.)

Buka said accurate and repeated testing – along with stringent isolation and social-distancing measures – are the most important actions that could take place in order to control the pandemic moving forward.

“We can keep the surge low by following all of those things,” he said.

The sentiment was echoed by Raimondo, who said Tuesday that the state’s entire model depends on how effectively the state follows its current strategy.

“If we’re good at our social distancing… the model will look very different with a slower peak,” she said. “If we start pushing the limits, it will be worse, higher and sooner.”

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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