There is “light at the end of the tunnel,” Gov. Gina Raimondo said during her daily briefing on the COVID-19 crisis – but the coming days be the most decisive yet in terms of how severely the virus ultimately affects the Ocean State.
“This weekend could be the most critical weekend in this entire fight,” she said. “We are so close to keeping a lid on this … Hang in there with us.”
She added: “I feel more confident than ever. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. But I need you to hunker down this weekend and do what we need you to do.”
Friday’s briefing – the first done in the State Room at the Rhode Island State House and without an in-person media contingent – provided reminders of how serious the situation has become and included notable new announcements from the governor and Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott.
Ten new COVID-19 cases were announced during the briefing, bringing the state’s total to 54. Another 11 new cases had been announced during Thursday’s briefing.
Raimondo said she has fully activated the Rhode Island National Guard – which has to this point been assisting with testing efforts – to provide “more boots on the ground” for logistics, call center staffing and other areas of need. The governor said the state’s fight to contain the virus has become a “24/7 operation.”
“We have been using the National Guard for weeks … Now it’s time for more,” she said.
Raimondo said she has no plans to institute a statewide lockdown or shelter-in-place order, even as states such as California, New York and Illinois have take similar drastic steps. She said rumors have abounded regarding potential local or even national lockdown orders that she has been asked about frequently of late.
The governor said such a dramatic step would have “massive consequences,” including further economic calamity and risks to “life and safety.”
“I don’t want to do that, and that’s not the plan. This is an unbelievable crisis … None of us have ever dealt with something like this,” she said.
Following the federal government’s announcement Friday that the tax filing and payment deadline will be pushed back from April 15 to July 15, Raimondo said Rhode Island will do the same. Citing the need for funding to keep the state government running, however, she asked those who are able to pay their taxes sooner.
“If you can pay your taxes on time, please do it,” she said, adding: “We need to keep the government running. We need the funds to be able to continue to provide these life-saving services … This is a time for every citizen to step up and do the right thing for the right reasons.”
In terms of Friday’s new positive cases, Alexander-Scott said the people involved range in age from pediatric to a person in their 70s. They include four females and six males. All are said to be recovering at home.
One of the 10 people traveled recently to Estonia and another to New Jersey, the health director said. The chain of infection in each case remains under investigation.
The 11 new cases announced Thursday include people ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s. Members of the group are known to have traveled to New York and Utah, Alexander-Scott said. One of the 11 was said to be hospitalized as of Thursday.
As of Friday afternoon, 800 people had tested negative for COVID-19 in Rhode Island. Results for another 247 people were pending. Approximately 2,500 people were under self-quarantine, including the roughly 1,700 members of the Cranston High School West community based on a positive test for a student there on March 13.
For the first time Thursday and Friday, health officials provided a breakdown by county of where the positive cases have been identified. On Friday, Providence County had the most with 30 cases, followed by Washington and Newport counties with eight apiece. Kent and Bristol counties are each listed as having fewer than five – which, based on the other totals, indicates four cases in each of those counties.
Alexander-Scott on Thursday that officials had held off on releasing geographic data regarding the positive tests based on concerns over privacy. As the state’s number of positive cases has grown, however, she said officials felt more comfortable that county-level data could be provided while protecting patient anonymity. She said data for specific cities and towns will likely be forthcoming at some point, but added: “I want to stress that this is a public health emergency that we are responding to as one state.”
Raimondo said presently, the State Health Laboratories have the ability to process 100 to 200 tests each day. The hope is to increase that number to 500 or 600. The governor said Rhode Island is doing “some of the most tests per capita of any state in the country.”
Alexander-Scott added: “We can put up as many [testing] sites as we need to as long as we have the stable input of supplies to maintain those higher levels of testing.”
The health director also acknowledged that the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence has been scouted as a possible COVID-19 triage center. Regarding additional sites, she added: “All possibilities are on the table.”
Raimondo on Thursday announced a new effort to seek donations of specific medical and laboratory supplies from businesses, medical officers and other potential providers. On Friday, she described the immediate response to the call as “heartwarming, unbelievable and hugely effective.” The full list of needed supplies and how to donate can be found here.
The following is a summary of other developments and announcements from the Thursday and Friday briefings:
On Thursday, the governor said the state’s court system will not process and residential or commercial evictions for the next 30 days. She also issued a renewed warning on price gouging, urging Rhode Islanders who experience this activity to contact the office of Attorney General Peter Neronha.
“The crisis is bringing out the best in most people. It’s also unfortunately true that the crisis is bringing out the worst in some others,” Raimondo said.
Raimondo on Friday said she is exploring the suggestion that restaurants be allowed to include alcohol in takeout orders while the prohibition on dine-in service remains in effect.
“I would like to be able to allow it and I am working through the … current regulatory barriers” to see if it if possible, she said.
She added: “If you have other creative, innovative ideas that would help your business, now is the time to let us know.”
Raimondo and Alexander-Scott both spoke Friday of the importance of mental health services during the ongoing crisis. The governor reiterated that insurers have been mandated to provide coverage for such services provided via phone or video in “the same way as if you went into the office.”
She also highlighted the BH Link hotline, which is now available for adults and children. It can be reached at (401) 414-LINK.
“I think it’s more important than ever that we pay attention to our mental health needs just as we do to our physical health needs,” she said, adding: “Staying at home doesn’t mean you have to be isolated.”