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Second wave of COVID-19 hits harder in RI’s smaller communities

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – In many ways, the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic has looked the same as the first in Rhode Island.

Infections and hospitalizations are soaring. Nursing homes and assisted-living facilities are battling new outbreaks. Front-line workers are voicing concerns over staffing shortages, limited space and an overwhelmed hospital systems.

And state leaders are simultaneously trying to promote proven public health strategies, such as keeping people apart, while insisting some of the economy must stay open – effectively pushing many together at work.

Unlike the first wave, however, the second surge of coronavirus isn’t only concentrated in the state’s more densely populated communities. It’s spreading quickly almost everywhere.  

“We’ve talked a lot about our more densely populated communities, such as Central Falls, Providence and Pawtucket,” state Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said Thursday. “But it’s important to make clear, we are now seeing case increases throughout almost the entire state.”

During the pandemic’s peak in the spring, R.I. Department of Health data showed the highest weekly rates of infections per capita were clustered in Providence and some of its surrounding communities, leaving Rhode Island’s more rural, sparsely populated communities relatively untouched.

During the week before Thanksgiving – so far, the worst week of the second wave – infection rates returned to relatively high levels in the Providence area. Central Falls was the worst again with nearly 1,000 cases per 100,000 residents that week.

But infections also hit all-time highs in 31 of 39 cities and towns, and rose sharply in some of the less densely populated municipalities where infections barely registered during the first wave.

For example, Charlestown, Foster, Hopkinton, Jamestown and West Greenwich all reported fewer than five new cases, respectively, during the week ended April 25 – the worst seven-day stretch in terms of new infections during the first wave.

During the week ended Nov. 21, weekly infection rates reached record highs in four of those five communities, which only have 34,300 residents combined.

Alexander-Scott named others, including Burrillville, Glocester and Westerly — which all reported record-high cases that same week.

“All have seen sizeable increases over the last month,” she said.

Examined more closely, the case counts are relatively small. Jamestown has reported only 91 infections throughout the entire pandemic. But nearly half of those have happened within the last four weeks, according to state data.

State Rep. Deb Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, said her community has been hyper-vigilant about staying safe during the pandemic. Whenever she goes out, Ruggiero said, she sees her constituents wearing masks. But the lawmaker said she’s still concerned that people everywhere have become weary, nine months into the pandemic, which is worrisome heading into the holiday season and the New Year — a time when people typically get together to socialize.

“I think people are fatigued,” Ruggiero said. “My fear is that we’re going into the worst three months.”

In other areas of the state, such as Coventry, the per-capita rate of infections totaled nearly 600 per 100,000 residents two weeks ago. By comparison, the rate was only 46 per 100,000 residents in the week ended April 25.

Overall infections in these smaller communities still pale in comparison to larger places, like Central Falls, Providence and Pawtucket, where both cases and weekly rates have likewise exceeded levels seen during the spring peak. But the numbers in those cities look almost consistent in comparison.

In Central Falls, for example, weekly infections per capital totaled 985 per 100,000 residents two weeks ago compared to 903 in April.

Some other more densely populated places – such as Cranston, Johnston and Warwick – have seen bigger swings. The three communities fared better than other more-densely populated areas during the first wave, but they are now getting hammered with higher infection rates.

In Cranston, the infection rate per capita totaled 771 per 100,000 residents two weeks ago. In April, it was just 153 per 100,000.

Of course, the comparisons aren’t perfect, since statewide testing and the accessibility of getting a test has greatly improved since the spring, particularly in recent months. But the rise of new infections across these communities cannot be tied entirely to more testing, as positivity rates has also grown.

Looking at Coventry again, the positivity rate – a measure of infections to tests – totaled 9.5% during the week ahead of Thanksgiving. In late April, when the state started tallying the number at the municipal level, the rate totaled 4.4%.  

Alexander-Scott warned the situation could continue to worsen across the state if people disregard public health guidance. The director said Rhode Islanders must wash their hands, wear masks and keep their distance from each other in order to make a difference.

“It doesn’t matter where you live,” Alexander-Scott said. “If you do not wear a mask with someone who you don’t live with, and you don’t practice social distancing, you are putting yourself, your loved ones, and everyone else around you in serious danger.”

Eli Sherman ( is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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