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New data shows fewer Rhode Islanders tested for COVID-19 than Raimondo touted

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island has tested about 16% of its population for coronavirus since the pandemic began, still short of the 20% benchmark Gov. Gina Raimondo publicly touted more than two weeks ago.

The gap between the two figures became apparent Wednesday when the R.I. Department of Health released a new tranche of data that offers a clearer look at how the state is administering its tops-in-the-nation testing program.

Rhode Island currently leads the rest of the country in testing per capita, but an analysis of the new data by Target 12 shows more than half the tests conducted over the last month were done on residents who had already been tested at least once before.

The upshot: total testing is rising at a significantly faster clip than additional residents getting tested for the first time.

The state for months has conducted so-called surveillance testing of high-risk populations — a group that includes nursing home residents and front-line workers such as hospital employees — who get tested regardless of symptoms.

More recently, childcare providers and employees in certain industries, including gyms, salons and other close-contact businesses, have also been offered the chance to get tested even if they aren’t showing signs of the disease.

The broader testing effort differs from the state’s initial approach beginning April 2, when testing was first made available to all individuals with symptoms. Until Wednesday, however, public health officials had never released a detailed breakdown of the gap between total tests and individuals tested.

The new data also revealed that the state’s daily announcement of newly identified COVID-19 cases only includes newly diagnosed individuals, excluding any positive test results that were returned for people whose infections had already been identified. A Health Department spokesperson said the daily update is meant to focus on new cases rather than all active cases.

On Monday, for example, the state reported 55 new people tested positive for COVID-19, even though 101 tests came back positive. The 46 positive cases that weren’t reported represented people who had already tested positive before.  

The more robust Health Department data also revealed that Raimondo has been inaccurately characterizing the level of testing across the Rhode Island population since at least June 22, when she proudly announced the state had become the first in the nation to test 20% of its population.

As of that day, only 143,832 individual people had been tested, representing about 14% of the state’s roughly 1 million people, according to the new data. As of Tuesday, 163,270 Rhode Islanders had been tested, still only representing about 16% of the state’s population.

Yet Raimondo has continued to tout the inaccurate figure, including in a Politico Magazine interview published Wednesday night, telling journalist Michael Grunwald, “We’ve tested 25% of our population.”

Asked about the governor’s comments, Raimondo spokesperson Audrey Lucas didn’t offer any clarification, but couched that Rhode Island was the “first in the country to test the equivalent of 20% of our population.”

“Across the country, states are generally reporting the number of tests and not the number of people tested,” Lucas said in an email. “In an effort to provide additional transparency, we are now reporting both the number of tests run and the number of individual people tested.”

As of June 22, the state had administered 228,842 tests, which would have accounted for upward of 20% of the state’s population if each test represented one person. But the data show more than one in three of those tests were administered to someone who had already been tested before.

When asked whether the governor is content with the high rate of repeat tests, especially over the last month, Lucas called it “encouraging.”

“The high percentage of people receiving repeat tests is unsurprising — and actually encouraging — given our focus on regularly testing certain populations, including those in congregate care settings, health care workers and other close-contact workers,” she said.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Ted Nesi contributed to this report.

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

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