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Homecoming dance tied to COVID-19 outbreak at Pilgrim High; cases rise statewide

Target 12

WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) – It’s a story that’s become familiar over the course of the pandemic.

A group of people gathered for a party. Few wore masks, and social distancing was an afterthought – if that. A week later, infections started to mount.

“This is a serious situation that needs cooperation from the entire Pilgrim community,” Warwick Superintendent Lynn Dambruch wrote in an email to families and staff at Pilgrim High School on Sunday.

About a week after celebrating its first homecoming dance since the pandemic started, the Warwick high school is experiencing an outbreak that has forced the school back into remote learning through Friday – a situation educators have been trying hard to avoid.

“Roughly 25 cases among students and staff have been identified,” R.I. Department of Health spokesperson Joseph Wendelken confirmed Monday. “Those individuals could have had many exposures, but more than half reported attending the homecoming dance.”

The Health Department will host a testing event for students and staff on Wednesday morning, according to Dambruch.

A year and a half into the pandemic, the coronavirus cycle looks ever the same. People gather. Virus spreads. People get sick. And while Pilgrim High School is going through the cycle this week, nearly every corner of Rhode Island has gone through some variation of the same story.

A Target 12 analysis of Health Department data shows nearly 16% of Rhode Island’s population has reported testing positive for COVID-19 at least once since infections first popped up locally in early 2020.

The good news for Warwick is that younger people – even when unvaccinated – are at a lower risk than older adults of becoming severely ill or dying from COVID-19. The bad news is that the Pilgrim outbreak is part of a larger trend of coronavirus infections growing again statewide.

A couple days before Halloween, Rhode Island was averaging about 200 new infections per day. As of Monday, the number had jumped 67% to about 335. That upward trend is one health officials don’t want to see ahead of the holiday season when people are more likely to gather indoors for parties with family and friends.

“As the holidays approach, the best thing that people can do to protect themselves and the people around them is get vaccinated,” Wendelken said, adding that people should consider getting tested before celebrating Thanksgiving next week.

Currently, the state has fully vaccinated about 70% of its 1.1 million people. The rate is likely to rise in the coming months, as health officials say multiple clinics for newly eligible 5- to 11-year-old children have already been booked out for several weeks in advance.  

The relatively high vaccination rate makes health officials bullish the state will not experience another surge like that one seen last winter, when 1,329 people with COVID-19 died between November and March. More than 5,600 people with the virus were admitted to the hospital during that same time.

But Pilgrim’s homecoming illustrates how the virus continues to spread quickly when given the chance, and the fallout extends well beyond the public health challenges. Standardized test scores released last month show a third of Rhode Island students were proficient in English language arts. Only one of every five were proficient in math, and educators largely blamed the pandemic. Outbreaks, quarantining and isolation has disrupted learning for three consecutive school years.

“We knew this was coming,” R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said about the scores.

Former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb expects some type of post-holiday spike is inevitable across the country, as CBS News reported over the weekend that infections are rising in 20 different states – including Rhode Island.

“People are exhausted right now, but we need to remain vigilant just for a little bit longer,” Gottlieb said Sunday on “Face The Nation.”

Yet Gottlieb is also optimistic that the country may be seeing “the light at the end of the tunnel” of the most recent wave caused by the delta variant. And while he expects COVID-19 will likely hang around as an endemic virus similar to the flu, Gottlieb said the virus should eventually dictate American life far less, especially as vaccines and treatments become more widely available.

“We may have to get revaccinated for this on an annual basis, but this is not going to be the pervasive risk that it is right now where it dominates our lives and dominates the economy,” he said.

As of Monday, 2,896 Rhode Islanders with COVID-19 have died since the pandemic stated. The state on Monday reported 937 new infections since the last time data was reported on Friday, as hospitalizations fell slightly to fewer than 100 people.

Total new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days increased to 222.3, the highest rate since Sept. 20.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. 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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