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Delta variant could fuel rise of COVID-19 infections in RI until Labor Day

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island health officials currently project the delta variant will continue to drive up new coronavirus infections locally until at least Labor Day, but they say that trajectory could be slowed by more people getting vaccinated.

The state’s medical director, Dr. James McDonald, said Thursday that Rhode Island is currently positioned better than many other states thanks to its relatively high vaccination rate, ranked among the highest in the country. But he nonetheless expects the highly contagious delta variant will spur a continued surge of new infections until at least the beginning of next month.

“Delta COVID looks like it might peak in Rhode Island by Labor Day, so I really don’t want people to wait [to get vaccinated] until then,” McDonald said during an interview on 12 News at 4. “If we can get more people vaccinated, that’s less people who get the disease, less people end up in the hospital and that’s more happiness for all of us.”

A Target 12 analysis of R.I. Department of Health data shows Rhode Island’s average daily infections have increased rapidly, climbing from about 15 at the end of June — a record low for 2021 — to 191 as of Thursday.

The rise in infections — which have typically preceded increases of hospitalizations and deaths in the past — haven’t set off alarm bells yet inside the administration of Gov. Dan McKee, as the governor this week said he’s unwilling to reimpose restrictions so long as hospitalizations and deaths remain low.

Those more severe metrics have stayed relatively low compared to many other times during the pandemic, which many health experts claim is evidence the vaccines are working as designed: older adults and people with underlying health conditions are better protected from severe illness and death.

“Remember, the original premise behind these vaccines were that they would substantially reduce the risk of death and severe disease and hospitalization,” former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said recently on CBS’s Face The Nation. “That premise is still fully intact.”

But more than 200,000 eligible Rhode Islanders remain unvaccinated, making it difficult to predict what kind of damage an increase in infections could cause. The governor’s office has announced McKee will hold a pandemic-specific news conference on Tuesday to “provide an update on COVID-19, the delta variant in Rhode Island, and the state’s continued response, recovery and vaccination efforts.”

McKee has been holding weekly news conferences for most of the time he’s been governor, but they haven’t been pandemic-specific since case counts dropped. The governor is scheduled to be joined Tuesday by Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander Scott.

The health director became the face of the state’s pandemic response during the Raimondo administration, but she has made fewer public appearances this summer as the pandemic appeared to be waning. The state COVID-19 response team’s executive director, Tom McCarthy, is also expected to join McKee and Alexander-Scott, along with Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos.

Nationwide, forecasters estimate the latest surge of cases nationwide could peak sometime in September or October, slightly later than McDonald’s projection. The doctor said the earlier projection for Rhode Island’s peak is because there are fewer unvaccinated people in the state compared with elsewhere, and the highly contagious delta variant will likely move through quickly.

“Because it’s so much more contagious, I think it’s going to burn out faster in our state,” McDonald said.

Based on the latest U.S. census data released earlier this year, Rhode Island has vaccinated about 60% of its total population. But vaccination rates vary widely by age.

State estimates show nearly 98% of adults 70 to 79 years old have been vaccinated, while only about 52% of adults 25 to 29 have received a shot, and there are signs the disparity of protection is showing up in the state’s case data.

Over the past week, infection rates have been highest among 19- to 39-year-old adults, the same age group with relatively low vaccination rates. Children ages 5 to 9 — who are not eligible for COVID-19 vaccines yet — had the next highest infection rate.

During his interview with 12 News, McDonald used a jar of jelly beans as a prop to explain that the delta variant compared to the original virus is the equivalent of a jar of 1,000 jelly beans to a single bean. While trying to bring some levity to the situation, the licensed pediatrician expressed some unusual frustration about the fact that infections are growing again — especially when vaccines are so widely available.

“In some ways, this part of the pandemic has been optional for the United States,” he said. “I wish we had just been done with it. This whole part’s been optional. We didn’t need this part.”

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

Kim Kalunian and Brian Yocono contributed to this report.

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

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