PROVIDENCE — Governor Gina M. Raimondo on Monday declared a state of emergency in Rhode Island as the state tries to contain an outbreak of the coronavirus.
Declaring a state of emergency gives the governor and state officials more leeway in dealing with the outbreak. For example, they can cut red tape to quickly buy necessary supplies or hire workers to help local health officials. And the governor could deploy the National Guard to help with the state’s response, if needed.
It “gives us more tools in our toolbox,” Raimondo said. “Specifically, it will enable us to better tap into resources of the National Guard, if necessary," and “it will make sure that we are first in line for any federal resources.”
Last week, state health officials said they had decided against declaring a state of emergency because the state had not seen widespread community transmission of the virus. But today, the state’s health director, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, noted that there has been community spread in nearby states. Both Massachusetts and New York have multiple confirmed cases.
When asked if it was a mixed message to declare an emergency while urging calm, Raimondo said, “What I’m saying to the people of Rhode Island is: We need to take action. This is real. This is here. We expect more cases.”
But at the same time, she said, “Statistically and factually, the risk to the average Rhode Islander at this point is low.”
Rhode Islanders should take steps such as washing their hands and staying home if they’re sick, Raimondo said.
The state has set up two coronavirus testing sites in large tents that are at locations away from hospitals, doctors’ offices, and other health facilities to try to keep people who may be infected away from patients who have compromised immune systems, Department of Health spokesman Joseph Wendelken said.
Those sent to the testing sites by their doctors may be able to “drive-through” — that is, stay in their cars as health workers reach through the window to swab their nose. Samples will be sent to the state Health Labs for analysis.
State officials did not say where the testing sites are located because they are only for people referred by a health professional.
Also on Monday, the state Department of Labor and Training took steps to make it easier for people who have to stay home because of the virus to access unemployment insurance and temporary disability insurance.
But Raimondo called on President Trump to declare a federal disaster and activate the Disaster Unemployment Assistance program “to provide additional relief for anyone who is out of work.”
“No state will be able to handle this on its own,” Raimondo said. “I don’t think it’s right for the federal government to ask states to shoulder the financial burden associated with compensating employees who are taking sick time or home on quarantine.”
Trump announced Monday that he would meet with congressional Republicans Tuesday to discuss a payroll tax cut and paid leave for workers who get sick.
Raimondo also announced that the federal government has given Rhode Island access to a stockpile of personal protection equipment such as masks, goggles, and gloves for use by doctors, nurses, and other front-line health care workers.
There already is a team of five specialists from the federal Centers for Disease Control in the state, where four people have been infected and 290 people are now quarantined.
Three students at Brown University are being tested for the virus, which causes a respiratory illness known as Covid-19, and are isolated pending the results of that test. Lifespan, the health agency that runs five hospitals in Rhode Island, stopped visits to patients last week.
And state health officials continue to instruct nursing home operators to protect their elderly residents, who are at high risk for dying from the infection, by banning visitors who are younger than 18, traveled internationally in the previous 14 days, currently feel sick, or are having symptoms such as cough, fever, chills, runny nose, stuffy nose, sore throat, or shortness of breath.
They also have told the homes to screen everybody — including employees, visitors, and vendors — who enters their facilities for signs of illness or risk for Covid-19.
The outbreak grew out of a trip to Europe, including Italy, by a group of students, staff, and teachers from Saint Raphael Academy in Pawtucket during February school vacation. Three people on that trip — a male in his 40s, a teenage girl, and a woman who lives in Norfolk County in Massachusetts but works at Saint Ray’s — fell ill and tested positive.
The fourth person was not connected to the trip: She works at the Smithfield Avenue Nursery School in Pawtucket and apparently contracted the illness after she had direct contact in late February with a person in New York with a confirmed case, Rhode Island health officials said Friday night.
The man who contracted the state’s first case of coronavirus remains hospitalized in stable condition, and he is continuing to improve, Alexander-Scott said. The others who tested positive remain at home with mild symptoms, health officials said.
Another 53 Rhode Islanders have tested negative for the virus, according to Alexander-Scott, while test results are pending for six others.