PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A year ago at this time, Rhode Islanders had recently mourned the first 1,000 lives claimed by the coronavirus pandemic, as the nation’s smallest state averaged about 100 new cases per day.
Fast forward to this week: COVID-19 has killed another 1,740 Rhode Islanders since then, and the state is averaging more than 150 new cases per day — an increase from 15 since June.
Public health experts are hopeful this year will be different. Scientific research and billions of dollars helped create highly effective vaccines. Nearly 60% of Rhode Island’s population has been fully vaccinated, offering a new level of protection that didn’t exist 12 months ago.
“We’re certainly over the worst of the pandemic,” Brown University school of public health dean Dr. Ashish Jha told The New Yorker last week. “I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to the level of suffering and death we saw at the end of last year.”
But nearly a year and a half into the pandemic, Rhode Island is facing different — albeit similarly complicated — problems. The highly contagious delta variant is kicking up infections at an alarming rate.
And health experts including Jha are concerned that too many people are trying to look beyond the doom and gloom of the past 18 months rather than recognize that the coronavirus remains a threat to public health and a danger to the U.S. economy.
“In some ways, people feel like the pandemic is done and it’s behind us here in the U.S.,” Jha told The New Yorker. “And yet the surge of infections from the delta variant is just getting going, and is really going to challenge us over the next several months. And most Americans, I think, aren’t aware of how much worse things could get.”
In Rhode Island, a Target 12 analysis of year-over-year data shows new infections and the state’s positivity rate are higher than this time last year, even as testing is relatively comparable. Health officials attribute this largely to the delta variant, which is about 40% to 60% more contagious than the original virus. And federal officials estimate upward of 80% of all new infections are the delta variant.
If there is a silver lining, however, it’s that the latest surge of infections in Rhode Island so far hasn’t come with a corresponding wave of hospitalizations and deaths.
In July, for example, R.I. Department of Health data shows COVID-19 hospital admissions totaled 95 people, compared to 212 during the same month last year. Rhode Island reported only five COVID-19 deaths for the month compared to 49 a year earlier.
Health officials are bullish that this is evidence the vaccines are working as designed: older adults and people with underlying health conditions, who are more susceptible to hospitalization and death after contracting the virus, are now vaccinated.
And as a result, Rhode Island is seeing fewer hospitalizations and deaths than last year, even as infections are higher.
“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 Sunday on CBS’s Face The Nation. “That premise is still fully intact.”
But it also means the virus isn’t petering out like many health experts and Rhode Islanders hoped might happen after vaccinations became widely available. And the virus is infecting mostly the unvaccinated, with the Health Department estimating 91% of new cases since Jan. 1 have been among people who haven’t received a shot.
The unvaccinated group includes people who have decided against getting a shot so far, along with those who are ineligible: children. Indeed, Health Department data shows weekly infection rates are increasing across all age groups, but rates among children and teenagers are higher than any age group 60 years and older.
“When you hear we have a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Yes that includes kids. But largely only in unvaccinated communities,” Jha tweeted on Monday. “Very few kids in highly vaccinated places are getting sick. So if you want to protect kids, make sure everyone around them has the shot.”
At the federal level, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending masks again, as the nation’s top health officials say the delta variant is behaving differently than past strains of the virus.
“Information on the delta variant from several states and other countries indicate that in rare occasions some vaccinated people infected with the delta variant after vaccination may be contagious and spread the virus to others,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said last week. “This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendations.”
Fully vaccinated Americans are now supposed to mask up indoors if they live in areas of the country with “substantial” or “high” coronavirus transmission. With a 7-day average of more than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents as of Monday, Rhode Island classifies as a state with high transmission.
Yet Gov. Dan McKee so far has decided against reacting to the new surge of infections with any new public health mandates, falling out of line with the Biden administration. He points to Rhode Island’s relatively high vaccination rate compared to other states as evidence those aren’t needed right now.
“The data that I’m seeing is telling us that we’re in good shape,” McKee said last week during a news conference, echoing previous statements that he doesn’t want Rhode Island to move backward.
“I would hope that the CDC would take into consideration states that actually followed the guidance that was given out of the White House and out of the CDC and recognize states that have done a really great job, so that we don’t pull a fire alarm, in fact, if there is no fire,” McKee added. “Right now, with all the data I’ve seen, we don’t have a fire.”