PROVIDENCE — Since early February, 26 people who recently traveled to China have voluntarily quarantined themselves in their Rhode Island homes while being monitored for the coronavirus, the director of the state Department of Health said Thursday.
Of those, six people were still quarantining themselves Thursday, but the 14-day monitoring period for three of them expired by the end of the day, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said. And so far, Rhode Island has had no confirmed cases of the virus, known as Covid-19, she said.
“The general level of risk for Rhode Islanders today is still low,” Alexander-Scott said at a news conference. But, she added, “We understand this is an evolving situation.”
When asked if she expects the virus to eventually reach this state, she said, “We anticipate that a case will happen in Rhode Island. It’s not a definite. But it’s definitely what we are preparing for, given what we are seeing worldwide.”
Since late December, more than 80,000 cases of Covid-19 have been diagnosed worldwide, and more than 2,700 people have died from the illness, with the vast majority of the deaths occurring in China.
As of Wednesday, 59 cases of coronavirus have been reported in the United States, with no deaths reported, according to the Department of Health.
Alexander-Scott spoke one day after Massachusetts health officials revealed that more than 600 Massachusetts residents who traveled to China recently had voluntarily quarantined themselves at home while being monitored for Covid-19. So far, 377 Massachusetts residents have completed the quarantine without falling ill, and 231 are still being monitored. One Massachusetts resident — a Boston student — has contracted the illness, and he is recovering in isolation at home, officials said.
Rhode Island is working with the federal government to monitor travelers.
The US Department of Homeland Security is routing flights carrying people who have traveled to China through 11 US airports (not including Logan in Boston or T.F. Green in Warwick), officials said. People returning from China’s Hubei Province — the epicenter of the outbreak — are being quarantined near the airport where they land.
People coming from other parts of China are being screened for symptoms, and if they don’t have any, they can continue to their destinations. If their destination is Rhode Island, the Department of Health is notified and is encouraging them to take part in the 14-day voluntary quarantine process, officials said.
“We are working with them closely to monitor for symptoms for 14 days at home or with limited movement locally,” Alexander-Scott said. “We are coordinating to make sure that people who are participating in that program and have been cooperating have the services and the supports they need to continue to be able to do that.”
A variety of state agencies have been preparing in case coronavirus does come to Rhode Island, she said. “We’ve had a pandemic before — in 2009 with H1N1,” she said. “We will get through this together.”
Alexander-Scott, a specialist in infectious diseases for children and adults, said it’s appropriate to be concerned. “There are unknowns,” she said. “But we want to be sure that friends, family, and the children, which are also important, have the information they need so they can prepare and not panic.”
While Rhode Island has not seen any coronavirus cases, it has seen 650 flu-related hospitalizations and 11 flu-related deaths this season, Alexander-Scott said.
She emphasized that many of the steps that people can take to prepare for the flu are the same steps they can take to prepare for the coronavirus. “The number 1 thing to mention is getting your flu shot,” she said. “It helps keep people out of the hospital.”
Also, people should wash their hands regularly, cough or sneeze into their elbows, stay home from work or school if they’re sick, avoid touching their eyes and mouths, and wipe down surfaces with disinfectants, she said.
But people don’t need to run out to buy a face mask.
“The [Centers for Disease Control] does not recommend that people who are well wear a face mask,” Alexander-Scott said. “Face masks are generally used to prevent sick people from getting other people sick.” Health officials want to make sure there’s enough protective gear available for those who need it, she said.
Alexander-Scott urged business owners to create healthy workplaces.
“You can actively encourage sick employees to stay home,” she said. “Look at your policies and see what type of flexibility can be allowed to permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member, if they need to.”
Alexander-Scott also urged Rhode Islanders to avoid the kind of anti-Asian prejudice seen elsewhere.
“Many travelers are not of Asian descent. Your ethnicity is not a risk factor for Covid-19,” she said. “I’ll close with a reminder about how important it is to continue to treat everyone in Rhode Island with dignity and respect.”