PROVIDENCE -- Rhode Island had its highest number of new cases of coronavirus in the previous 24 hours Tuesday, a sign of both more testing for the disease and the extent of its spread throughout the state.
Another 394 Rhode Islanders have tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, bringing the total number of cases to 5,500, according to the state Department of Health. The state reported 16 new fatalities, bringing the state’s death toll to 171. Most of those who have died from the disease have been residents of nursing homes.
“Cases are still rising, they are not declining, pretty steady,” Governor Gina M. Raimondo said during her daily news conference at the State House. “But clearly, we are flattening the curve, clearly the peak is not as bad as it could have been.”
Hospitalizations remain high: a total of 271 Rhode Islanders are now hospitalized with the virus, including 67 people in the intensive care unit and 43 on ventilators, according to health data.
The field hospitals will be ready to hold another 1,000 hospital beds, Raimondo said, in case Rhode Island faces a surge. Work started on the hospitals weeks ago, she said, when scientific models predicted there could be as many as 6,000 people who would need hospitalization by the end of this month.
But the effect of restrictions, business closures, and a stay-at-home order have brought down the model’s projections significantly, and the field hospitals may not be immediately necessary, she said.
The state is continuing to test more than 2,000 people a day, but the governor has said that far more testing is necessary to understand and contain the spread. As of Tuesday, health officials had conducted more than 39,300 tests in Rhode Island.
Meanwhile, as the governor ended her news conference, about 100 union health care workers rallied in a caravan outside Butler Hospital to demand that management provide critical N-95 respirators to all health care professionals at the facility -- including social services employees, dietary workers, and housekeeping staff.
There have been at least 10 positive cases of COVID-19 among staff and patients at the psychiatric hospital, according to SEIU Healthcare 1199, which represents 600 employees there.
“Our brothers and sisters in housekeeping play just as big of a role. They are very important,” said registered nurse Ashley Ouellette. “We’re taking this very seriously and want our administration to take it seriously. Give us PPE and testing.”
On Monday, Raimondo outlined the criteria she said Rhode Island will have to meet to reopen the economy. There are many factors, she said: Is the rate of spread decreasing? Can the state quickly identify community spread and halt another outbreak? Does the health care system have the capacity and medical supplies to handle future surges?
All are works in progress.
It’s too early to know whether the conditions will be right to lift the stay-at-home order when it expires on May 8, or whether schools will reopen before the end of the year, she said.
Raimondo said she expected to make an announcement by the end of the week whether schools would reopen. But her tone was not hopeful. “It’s a tough call. Our children deserve a chance to learn to the best ability we can offer. But it’s difficult to imagine how to safely allow 500, 600, 700, 1,200 kids,” she said.
Rhode Island’s economy has been devastated by the coronavirus, with an unprecedented 170,000 people filing for unemployment insurance in the past six weeks. Raimondo said the system to help people recertify their claims was upgraded recently and is processing claims much quicker -- on Sunday, 75,000 claims were recertified as quickly as they came in.
For front-line medical workers, first-responders, and public safety employees, home care and congregant-care workers afraid to return home -- and possibly transmit the virus -- Brown University is offering 700 single-occupancy rooms for free. Laundry and food services are available for a fee.
In the past week, Rhode Island obtained 2 million surgical masks, primarily bought in the private market after “scouring around the world," Raimondo said.
These purchases will allow health care workers to change surgical masks on a daily basis, instead of reusing them multiple days. “I realize that’s slight consolation, but it’s an improvement. It’s a signal that we care about you,” she said.
So far, Rhode Island has spent $35 million to $40 million on personal protective equipment, an amount “that is certainly going to grow, and all federally reimbursable,” said Brett Smiley, director of the state Department of Administration.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio announced they are forming a 10-member Joint Legislative COVID-19 Emergency Spending Task Force to examine the Raimondo administration’s commitment of more than $100 million in emergency spending.
The task force, which is expected to meet April 30, will review the process and contracts that set up the field hospitals and purchased medical equipment and PPE.
“I think that Governor Raimondo has been doing an exemplary job in her handling of this public health crisis," Ruggerio said in a statement. "At the same time, it is our obligation to provide appropriate oversight of the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal relief aid being expended to address the pandemic. This approach, which is limited to overseeing the federal emergency assistance, fulfills a crucial check-and-balance role of the Assembly while ensuring that the governor has the flexibility she needs to swiftly direct relief funds where they are needed.”