PROVIDENCE — Health officials from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are now in Rhode Island to try to contain an outbreak of the coronavirus that arose from a private school’s trip to Europe during February vacation, state officials said Thursday.
Five experts from the CDC’s epidemic intelligence service are “embedded” with state health officials, according to Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the state Department of Health, “building our capacity to respond to the emergency event.”
Specifically, the CDC officials are helping to trace those who have come in contact with the three people who have tested positive for Covid-19 since returning from a trip to Europe. The trip, by students and staff of Saint Raphael Academy, a Catholic high school in Pawtucket, stopped in Italy, which the CDC has given a Level 3 travel advisory, the agency’s highest.
The federal health officials are helping local health and school administrators with decisions they are making in response to the outbreak, she said.
Covid-19 is the respiratory illness that arises from infection by the coronavirus.
“They are here working with us on a daily, continuing basis with the Department of Health," Governor Gina M. Raimondo said at a news conference. "That is an excellent development to know that we have some of CDC’s top experts here in Rhode Island working.”
Alexander-Scott agreed: "It really puts Rhode Island center stage, on the front line, with getting the latest information, with the CDC here in our state, activating our forces.”
Some 200 people are quarantined in Rhode Island because of the virus. That number shot up this week after it was revealed that a Saint Raphael student and a faculty member went to school after returning from Italy, but before they tested positive for Covid-19.
Alexander-Scott said the process of tracing whom ill people have come into contact with is intensive and expensive. “With schools involved, it has increased exponentially," she said. “It is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is here with us.”
On Wednesday, California declared a state of emergency after its first coronavirus-linked fatality — an elderly patient who possibly contracted the virus on a cruise ship.
Alexander-Scott said Rhode Island “absolutely considered” declaring a state of emergency, but officials decided against it because it appears that the infection has been limited to three people: two Rhode Islanders and a Massachusetts woman who went on the Saint Raphael school trip.
“We do not currently have widespread community transmission at this time,” she said. “Other jurisdictions are tending to use that as a consideration for when you activate a public health emergency.”
So Alexander-Scott said she would not call Rhode Island a “hot spot” for coronavirus.
Raimondo called for all high schools and colleges in Rhode Island to cancel or postpone organized trips overseas that involve large numbers of people.
“To be clear, that is different than a single person or family traveling,” she said. But if an organization is planning to travel with 10, 20, 30, 40 or more people abroad, she said, “I am calling on those organizations to cancel or postpone those trips.”
Raimondo said her administration is directing all state employees who have traveled to China, Iran, Italy, South Korea, or Japan in the past two weeks to stay home from work, and not return until they have been symptom-free for 14 consecutive days.
And she asked Rhode Island employers to adopt a similar policy. “This is a matter of public health,” she said. “I recognize it is an extreme inconvenience,” but, she said, “We want to stop the spread of the disease.”
The Department of Health said coronavirus tests are now pending for eight people in Rhode Island, and tests have come back negative for 17 others.
Alexander-Scott said the man in his 40s who was the first confirmed case in Rhode Island remains in the hospital and “clinically stable.” And the teenage student who tested positive “has recovered and is doing well,” she said.
Also, officials announced that the Department of Health will set up more coronavirus testing sites in “non-healthcare settings.”
“We are working with the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency over the course of the next few days to set up additional testing sites around the state -- not necessarily in traditional health care environments,” Raimondo said. The health care workers there would be equipped with training and the protective equipment needed for such testing, she said.
Alexander-Scott said these new testing sites will not be open for members of the public to walk in for testing, but will be controlled by the Department of Health. She said the state is trying to make it easy for people to get tested without exposing primary care doctors and other health care workers.
“This is not a public-facing test option. This will continue to be controlled through the Department of Health,” she said. "We have sites set up that will be available in a robust program to help be able to reach those people (who need testing) instead of them having them go to a health-care facility and exposing health-care workers who we need to continue be on the front lines.”
Just as Thursday’s news conference was about to begin, Hasbro Children’s Hospital announced that it was postponing the Heroes Ball charitable event scheduled for Saturday “out of an abundance of caution.”
“We deeply regret having to make this decision — particularly so close to the actual event,” said Lifespan president and CEO, Dr. Timothy J. Babineau.
But the hospital had to take into consideration the large number of doctors, nurses, and other health-care providers who would be at the fund-raiser, he said.
“The risk, as low as it would be, of having an exposure to the Covid-19 virus at the event that would require quarantine of these individuals is one that we simply can’t take,” Babineau said in a statement. “These are the physicians, nurses, therapists and other clinicians who care for our children and adults when they are sick or injured. If they were to be quarantined for any reason, the impact on our hospitals would be significant.”
Meanwhile, Saint Raphael Academy announced that it has canceled a school trip to Spain that had been planned for the April break.
On its website, school officials said EF Educational Tours has agreed to issue travel vouchers for use on one of the company’s future trips. “If you choose not to go on a future EF Tour, participants will be contacted separately with details regarding compensation,” the school said. “We will be in touch with each family as details are solidified.”
The Department of Health has set up a Covid-19 hotline to answer questions at (401) 222-8022. After 4:30 p.m., anyone with questions about Covid-19 should call 211. And people can write to RIDOH.COVID19Questions@health.ri.gov or visit www.health.ri.gov/covid