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Raimondo remains confident in RI reopening plan despite Fauci remarks

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island is betting big on its ability to respond to future flareups of COVID-19, even as federal health officials warn reopening states will likely see a spike in new cases that could turn into larger outbreaks if handled poorly.

Rhode Island last weekend lifted a stay-at-home order, even as Massachusetts and Connecticut have kept theirs in place. Gov. Gina Raimondo is bullish about the state’s trajectory with hospitalizations and cases trending downward, while deaths – a lagging indicator – have begun to plateau.

But Dr. Anthony Fauci, an influential member of the White House coronavirus task force, offered an ominous warning Tuesday about states relaxing public health restrictions and moving too quickly to reopen economies.

“My concern is that we will start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks,” Fauci told a U.S. Senate committee on Tuesday, adding that outbreaks could lead “to some suffering and death that could be avoided.”

Fauci, who leads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said this could be particularly true in states that reopen without following the guidelines laid out by the White House, which include a recommendation that states wait for 14 consecutive days of declining new cases before starting to reopen.

The R.I. Department of Health reports new cases have trended downward since peaking on April 24, but there have been at least five days with increases of new cases over the last two weeks.

When asked about Fauci’s comments Tuesday, Raimondo pointed out that cases and hospitalizations have been trending downward recently, and said she’s taking it slow – noting that gathering sizes still cannot exceed five people, a lower threshold than Massachusetts or the CDC has set.

“I want to go slowly and never have to pull back,” Raimondo said during her daily briefing.  

The governor said her No. 1 goal is to avoid returning to a situation that forces her to shut down the economy again, and she is placing a large part of the responsibility on Rhode Islanders, saying future health outcomes depend largely on how closely people follow the rules of social distancing, limited crowd sizes and wearing masks in public.

“If we push it too hard in the beginning, we’ll overwhelm the system and end up right where we started,” she said.

The health consequences of large gatherings have played out most acutely in places where people live in close quarters and in businesses where employees have worked throughout the public health crisis, including manufacturers and long-term care facilities.

Last month, about 80 employees at the Burrillville meat-making factory Daniele Inc. tested positive for the disease. Shortly thereafter, the Health Department confirmed another cluster of about 100 infections at Taylor Farms New England, which prepares pre-packaged food in the Quonset Business Park of North Kingstown.

The companies have since implemented stricter rules around monitoring for the disease, but they nonetheless offer a stark reminder that the disease remains highly contagious.

And a lot of people who are getting sick at work are taking the disease home with them – an especially dangerous situation in densely populated households where people cannot isolate or quarantine even if they become sick. A Target 12 analysis of ZIP code data last week showed rates of cases were highest in densely populated neighborhoods where many have worked away from home during the crisis.

COVID-19 is also showing up in places health officials have worked hard to protect, including the state-operated R.I. Veterans Home, where more than a dozen residents have tested positive for the disease and a handful have died after weeks of no reported cases and strict restrictions on visitors.

The nursing home for wartime veterans had about 200 residents as of earlier this year.

Likewise, at least seven employees of the Health Department – which heads the state’s response effort – have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days, underscoring how challenging the disease can be even in workplaces that are hyper-sensitive to its ability to spread.

“People can be positive and not have any symptoms at all,” Health Director Dr. Alexander-Scott said over the weekend. “That’s what’s making this virus so challenging.”

The end of Raimondo’s stay-at-home order means more people can return to work, including small retailers that were previously kept closed. The state is also devising a plan that would let restaurants offer outdoor seating by the end of the month. And Raimondo said it’s her goal eventually to get everyone back to work, saying joblessness creates its own health problems.

“It’s not healthy to keep so many Rhode Islanders out of work for so long,” Raimondo said.

The governor has acknowledged the plan to reopen could result in new cases starting to trend upward again, saying she plans to offer more specific details later this week about what thresholds might trigger the need to implement stricter rules again.

But Raimondo is adamant about avoiding such a scenario, saying she’s confident it will not happen in part because she trusts Rhode Islanders will follow the rules. And in instances when those efforts don’t work, the state’s testing infrastructure, contact tracing strategy and hospital infrastructure is well suited to respond to emerging clusters of the disease before they turn into full-fledged outbreaks, she added.

“If you get sick, you will be tested,” Raimondo explained. “If you test positive, you will be quickly called and asked who you’ve been in contact with.”

Raimondo urged people to continue keep track of their contacts on a daily basis, an initiative she said is especially important now that people are allowed out of their homes. The state has more than 100 state employees working specific on contact tracing efforts, which Raimondo hopes will soon be more automated with the help of an app that’s being developed through a deal with Salesforce.com.

“The more you follow the rules, the more and faster and we can reopen the economy,” Raimondo said.

While not addressing Rhode Island specifically, Fauci sounded much less optimistic, telling senators the decisions by local and state leaders to reopen economies will likely come with a cost to public health because the nation broadly still lacks the tools needed to respond effectively.

“There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control,” he said.

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

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