PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – IBM has provided Rhode Island with a new analysis of contact-tracing data that suggests 42% of coronavirus transmissions in recent weeks have likely happened between families or households, while the rest have occurred elsewhere in the community.
The company — through its partner Salesforce, which is contracted with the state — provided the analysis to the R.I. Department of Health a day after state officials acknowledged it was nearly impossible to identify where transmission was happening because the virus is so widespread. And while Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said that remains true, the new information from IBM offers a more detailed look at what limited data is available.
“There are limitations on the data, but these are directionally accurate,” Wendelken told Target 12, adding that gaps in the information should be expected when relying on humans to self-report information about their close contacts and travel history.
The IBM analysis of 4,162 cases from Sept. 14 to Nov. 4 – representing about 32% of the 12,901 infections reported statewide during that time period – shows roughly 42% of transmission likely happened between family or within the same household.
The remaining infections – roughly 58% of the total – were designated as “community transmission cases,” meaning they likely happened somewhere outside of the home. Of those roughly 2,660 cases, IBM concluded 36% likely happened at work, 26% happened at settings where there are customers – such as restaurants and bars – and 11% occurred at recreational sites, including churches, parks and sports settings, according to the analysis. The rest were unspecified.
The analysis offers a new window into where the virus could be spreading most among Rhode Islanders, and while the workplace appears to be the biggest driver of infections outside of the home, Gov. Gina Raimondo has said she’s going to do whatever possible not to shut down businesses.
“I am going to do everything I can to avoid that or put it off as long as possible, but I may not have that option given the trend that we’re on with hospitalizations,” Raimondo said Tuesday during her weekly interview on 12 News Now at 4.
There were 284 people with coronavirus reported to be in the hospital as of Wednesday, according to the Health Department, which was the highest level since May 13. And top health officials said Wednesday they expect a Cranston field hospital set up to handle overflow could see its first patients within the next few weeks. A second field hospital, at the Rhode Island Convention Center, is also being readied.
Absent from the IBM analysis is any specific mention of schools, a notable omission considering the state has separately identified at least 1,470 cases among in-person students and staff since Sept. 14. Wendelken acknowledged there was no schools category, but he said any infected teachers or other staff members would be included in the workplace category of the analysis.
“For people who work in K-12 schools, their numbers should be in the ‘employment’ category,” he explained, adding that he’s not sure how college and university cases factor in.
Rhode Island leaders have been adamant that schools are not a significant source of spread, with Raimondo saying there’s no evidence to suggest otherwise, echoing the view of many national experts. The governor has also warned that being out of school takes a behavioral and emotional toll on students. And limiting interaction between students and adults outside of their families also opens the door for things like child abuse and neglect to go unchecked.
The state’s medical director, Dr. James McDonald, doubled down on the argument that schools are not a problem during an interview with 12 News on Wednesday.
“We’re just not seeing outbreaks in the same classroom or the in the same school that are widespread,” McDonald said, adding he’d received the IBM analysis that same day. “We’re seeing cases in schools, and we’re seeing a few outbreaks, but they’re being managed right now. Obviously it’s an area we keep looking at.”
Nonetheless, state education officials told high schools late Wednesday to prepare for the possibility of scaling back to just 25% capacity in the coming weeks, as teacher absences related to the coronavirus have challenged the districts’ ability to maintain adequate staffing levels. Teachers unions, meanwhile, have fought against in-person learning since the start of school, arguing that it’s unsafe for adults and that staffing levels would become a problem.
“It doesn’t matter the source!” National Education Association of Rhode Island executive director Robert Walsh tweeted Thursday. “Whether adults and students are infected or just required to quarantine the number of people unavailable to cover classes or attend classes make the in-person system unsustainable as caseloads surge. Why are people ignoring that aspect?”
For weeks the governor has pointed to small, social gatherings as a primary driver of infections. But as Target 12 reported Tuesday, health officials were finding it almost impossible to identify new infections because the virus has become so widespread, and the state’s contact tracing efforts haven’t been able to keep up.
Following Target 12’s report, several viewers reported having never been contacted by health officials after testing positive, and some said they took it upon themselves to reach out to close contacts instead.
The IBM analysis, which offers the clearest picture yet of where the virus might be spreading locally, shows family and household transmission is by far the biggest problem. The data echoes what was seen during the first wave of the pandemic: the coronavirus spreads most easily among people living in close quarters.
The dynamic played out most severely in the state’s most densely populated communities, including Central Falls, where the situation appears to be repeating itself during the second wave. The one-square-mile community – with nearly 20,000 residents – has reported the highest rate of weekly cases out of all 39 cities and towns for several weeks in a row, with more than seven of every 1,000 residents testing positive last week.
Since March, roughly 11% of the city’s population has been infected, according to the Health Department, and the most recent rash of cases spurred Central Falls James Diossa to order all restaurants and bars citywide to close for the rest of November.
“The second wave of COVID-19 is proving to be brutal to our state; but especially harsh in our city as Central Falls residents continue to suffer a disproportionate burden of disease,” Diossa said in a statement earlier this week.
The city’s challenges are multifold, but based on the IBM analysis, the city is likely getting hit from two sides. Multifamily homes where several people live together in close quarters are abundant in Central Falls, and the IBM analysis shows households are the most common place for the virus to spread.
Additionally, nearly 40% of the city’s workforce is employed in either manufacturing or health care and social assistance, according to a 2018 report by the R.I. Department of Labor and Training. The two industries have remained largely open throughout the pandemic with people expected to go to work in-person. According to IBM, the most common place for the virus to spread outside of the home in Rhode Island is at work.
How the new data might inform the state’s future policy decisions remains unclear. But Raimondo often cites national health experts, including Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, who argues broad lockdowns are not necessary if more targeted closures are implemented.
Jha has repeatedly pointed to Michigan as a good example, where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has ordered closed casinos, high schools, colleges and universities, workplaces — if work can be done from home — and indoor dining for restaurants and bars.
But the Michigan governor, a Democrat, has allowed other activities and parts of the economy to remain open, including preschool through 8th grade, two-household gatherings, barbershops and salons, childcare, manufacturing and construction and other industries.
“We don’t need national lockdowns,” Jha tweeted Tuesday. “We need targeted restrictions that minimize risks, keep community safe.”
Eli Sherman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.
Kim Kalunian contributed to this report.