PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Governor Gina M. Raimondo on Saturday announced new measures to expand healthcare access to healthcare for Rhode Islanders as the number of residents testing positive for coronavirus rose from 14 to 20.
The six new cases include four men and two women between their 30s and 70s. One had traveled to Portugal and two others had traveled to California, said Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, who directs the state’s health department.
Health officials were still determining how the other three contracted the virus, she said.
“Because we are surrounded by states with community spread, we are [heading] in that direction in Rhode Island,” she said.
About 600 people are under quarantine in Rhode Island, according to the Health Department, including students and staff at Westerly’s Springbrook Elementary School and Cranston High School West, after a second-grade boy and a high school student tested positive for the virus.
The 20 cases statewide range from a preschool-age boy in Westerly to a nursing home resident in his 70s. Only one has required hospitalization — Saint Raphael Academy vice principal of student life Marc Thibault, who became infected during a school trip to Europe last month. He is expected to be discharged this weekend.
Raimondo and Alexander-Scott again urged Rhode Islanders to avoid crowds, maintain social distances in public, and stay home whenever possible, especially when they’re sick.
“This is the time right now that is most critical,” Alexander-Scott said. “Everyone heeding these guidelines now makes a difference.”
That includes not attending weekend church services, particularly for those over 60 or with health conditions, Raimondo said.
Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence and Bishop W. Nicholas Knisely of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island told their congregations that parishioners over 60 or with health conditions should not attend services this weekend. They left it up to individual pastors to decide whether to cancel services.
“I can hear my mother now who’s never missed Mass a day in her life,” Raimondo said. However, she said she would urge pastors to cancel all services this weekend.
The restraints on public life have led quickly to job losses. Raimondo said there’s been a rapid increase of people filing for unemployment. “It’s inevitable that people will be laid off," Raimondo said. “We are working with businesses to minimize this.”
That’s one of the reasons HealthSource RI, the state’s official marketplace for health insurance coverage, is opening a special enrollment period for residents to purchase coverage through April 15, Raimondo said. Anyone who needs treatment now will be covered retroactively, she said.
Raimondo also announced new guidelines for insurers. To allow people to remain at home, and prevent healthcare workers from becoming infected, Raimondo said she was ordering all health insurers, including Medicaid, to allow patients to seek primary and mental health care by telephone. That includes prescription refills, provided that the prescription would remain valid beyond the refill date.
She also ordered providers to ensure that testing and screening for coronavirus, known as COVID-19, can be done without prior authorization and without any cost to the patient. When a federally approved vaccine becomes available, she wants insurers to cover the cost for all enrollees.
About 100 people were tested for coronavirus on Friday, and Raimondo said she plans to speak with medical providers on Monday about establishing drive-through testing.
Public schools are closed next week for April vacation, giving officials time to clean the buildings and prepare virtual learning plans if schools remain closed.
Raimondo said they are also working on plans to feed children who receive free school breakfasts and lunches. The state is also working on a town level to figure out how to deliver food to elderly residents who had received meals at now-closed senior centers.
All visitors are banned from nursing homes, whose residents are considered most vulnerable to the virus. Raimondo also issued an executive order Friday for Rhode Islanders to self-quarantine for two weeks after returning from a trip abroad.
Meanwhile, in cities and towns, people are adjusting to the new reality.
On Saturday afternoon, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung appealed on social media to students at Cranston West to “go home and stay home” during the quarantine.
“I know it can seem unreal that this is happening -- but it is,” Fung said. “This crazy new virus appears to be very contagious, and if you have it, it can hop off of you and onto your grandparents and friends with a weakened immune system, and they can be in a lot of health trouble.”
Fung said the city had asked all 1,727 students and staff at Cranston West to self-quarantine, raising the initial quarantine count cited by the Health Department early Saturday.
Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven M. Pare said Friday that police officers and firefighters have a new protocol to deal with people who may have symptoms of the highly contagious virus. Emergency dispatchers screen callers and ask about symptoms before first-responders arrive. Firefighters have specialized masks that are effective at screening airborne particles but only wear them if necessary, Pare said.
For patients suspected to have coronavirus, only two rescuers are sent to avoid exposing others, Pare said.
“We’ve got to take care of our own people, because they take care of the community,” Pare said. “If they’re not dealing well or are sick, they stay home.”