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RI expands COVID-19 testing after lagging other New England states

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The announcement Thursday that Rhode Island is expanding COVID-19 testing to anyone showing symptoms could go a long way toward strengthening its response to the pandemic locally, after the state has lagged behind the rest of New England.

The R.I. Department of Health said all Rhode Islanders with symptoms – such as fever, cough and shortness of breath – are now allowed to receive a test if approved by a physician. The timing coincides with Gov. Gina Raimondo’s recent announcement that the state will now have the capacity to test 1,000 people per day.

The new developments appear to be good news considering Rhode Island has tested fewer people per capita than any other state in New England, according to a Target 12 analysis of testing data across the country.

“We have six swabbing sites all around the state, and six labs processing these tests,” Raimondo explained during a daily briefing on Wednesday.

As of Tuesday, the state had tested 3,964 Rhode Islanders – or about 374 tests for every 100,000 people – ranking it 22nd in the nation.

While that rate of testing was slightly greater than the nationwide average of about 350 per 100,000 people, it trailed behind most other states in New England and the Northeast, according to a Target 12 analysis of U.S. Census data and state-by-state testing numbers compiled by The COVID Tracking Project.

In New England, Vermont had tested the most people – 681 tests per every 100,000 residents – followed by Massachusetts (675), Maine (475), Connecticut (453), New Hampshire (450) and Rhode Island (374).

New York had administered the most tests in the United States – 1,054 per 100,000 people – and Oklahoma had tested the fewest, about 45 per 100,000.

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For more than a month, state leaders have been ramping up response efforts to COVID-19, which has infected more than 650 people and killed 12 in Rhode Island. But limited access has been a major hurdle, forcing state leaders until now to restrict who got the test to include individuals with certain travel histories, hospital workers and those in congregate settings such as nursing homes.

Raimondo is now bullish that the state’s increased testing capacity will help springboard efforts to stamp down future spread of the disease, and she has been simultaneously trying to boost its ability to process tests.

Before Thursday, the state had been testing upward of 500 people per day, according to Raimondo, but processed tests each day only exceeded 500 once last month, on March 27, according to public data released by the R.I. Department of Health. (Rhode Island also started including negative tests from private labs in its daily reporting that day.)

The governor earlier this week pointed out that the state now has six labs — state and private — to help process more tests, which could speed up the process, and there are some initial signs that it’s happening. On Thursday, the state reported more than 670 new processed tests from the day before.

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But how much of a backlog the state is currently dealing with is unclear, as public health officials stopped reporting the number of pending tests each day on March 27. Asked at the time about the change, Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said the state decided to stop disclosing a pending number because it couldn’t include private labs.

“The pending number is really not that meaningful, because every pending test just becomes a positive or a negative the next day,” Wendelken wrote in an email.

But the state is still a ways off from returning tests within a day. Health Department medical director Dr. James McDonald told WPRI 12 this week the state lab could turn around same-day testing right now, while private labs need about three days. Target 12 has separately received multiple calls from Rhode Islanders who have claimed they waited much longer for test results.

Raimondo this week said it’s her goal to get to one-day testing for everyone, but couldn’t yet offer a clear timeline.

“Soon, in a week or two … I’d like to have here in the state of Rhode Island same-day testing widely available,” Raimondo said Wednesday. “That’s where we’re going. I don’t know exactly when it will be. That’s the goal.”

In the meantime, the new loosened restrictions around who gets tested coupled with broadened testing capacity could ultimately help the state move closer to what’s widely considered the gold standard in testing: South Korea.

The East Asian country’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak has been studied by other governments as a potential playbook, and its rapid testing model is held in wide regard across the globe.

As of March 26, South Korea had administered more than 700 tests per 100,000 people, according to a New York Times report. Rhode Island needs to roughly double testing to reach a similar level.  

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

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