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Out-of-state residents account for 3% of COVID-19 cases in RI

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Out-of-state residents currently make up about 3% of Rhode Island’s nearly 18,000 coronavirus cases, and most of them have likely come for employment rather than tourism, according to a review of newly released data.

The R.I. Department of Health as of last Thursday reported 571 people from 18 states had tested positive for COVID-19 at least once since the pandemic started in Rhode Island.

The newly reported data comes amid the state’s busiest tourism season, with many nonresidents traveling into the state for vacation. But Massachusetts residents so far account for roughly 83% – or 467 – of all known out-of-state cases, which health officials said is most likely representative of people coming into Rhode Island for work or to seek health care services.

“The high number of Massachusetts is probably attributable to workers getting tested in Rhode Island,” Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said. “And of course, there are people in border communities who are accustomed to coming to Rhode Island for care.”

Rhode Island for months has regularly tested and retested high-risk workers, such as hospital and nursing home employees, which would include anyone commuting into the state for work. Similarly, Rhode Island’s other neighbor, Connecticut, has the second most residents to test positive in the Ocean State – 38 people – accounting for 7% of known out-of-state cases.

Beyond Massachusetts and Connecticut, the nonresidents with the highest number of positive tests in the Ocean State come from New York (16), Florida (10) and Pennsylvania (9), according to the data.  

At least one person tested positive from another 13 states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Virginia, according to the data.

The out-of-state cases are reflected in Rhode Island’s cumulative total of 17,986, as of Tuesday, although Wendelken said they are excluded from municipal totals. By example, if a New York resident tests positive while visiting Newport, the case would count toward the state’s total, but not the city’s total.

“Both ways of counting are important – looking at how many of your residents are testing positive, and looking at how many people in your state are testing positive,” Wendelken said.

Rhode Island also counts cases among residents who test positive in other states, raising questions about whether health departments across the country are double counting cases – which could inflate nationwide totals.

But public health officials are adamant that’s not happening in Rhode Island or anywhere else, as health agencies report “resident-only data” nationally.  

“We count people once,” Health Director Dr. James McDonald said. “I’m not worried about double counting anywhere in the country.”

Massachusetts and Connecticut health officials did not immediately respond to questions about how they count resident and nonresident cases.

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

Tim White and Logan Wilber contributed to this story.

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

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