PROVIDENCE -- Rhode Island will stay in the first phase of reopening its economy through early June, Governor Gina M. Raimondo said Friday, doubling the time between stages so health officials have enough time to evaluate the effect of loosening restrictions.
Previously, the governor had indicated it could take two weeks or so to move between phases, but now she is saying the state must wait about a month before easing limits even more.
“I’m sorry if that created confusion, but as a rule of thumb it will be a month-ish between phases,” Raimondo said. “Phase 2 ought to start at the beginning of June, assuming things go well." And she hopes to see Phase 3 begin in July.
As part of Phase 1, the state lifted its stay-at-home order, allowed restaurants to offer outdoor dining with limits, and let nonessential retail stores to open -- also with limits. But social gatherings are still capped at five people and “close-contact” businesses such a barbers, hair dressers, tattoo parlors, and nail salons must stay closed for now.
Raimondo said that before deciding whether to ease restrictions and open more portions of the economy, state officials will look at four metrics: hospital capacity, new hospitalizations, the rate of the virus’s spread, and the rate of hospitalizations.
The metrics are designed to avoid hospitals getting overwhelmed with ill patients as happened in Italy and New York, she said. Specifically, the state will consider moving into Phase 2 if:
1. Less than 70 percent of hospital beds are filled. If more than 85 percent of those beds are filled, the state may move back a step.
2. There are fewer than 30 new hospitalizations per day. Conversely, 50 or more hospitalizations per day could trigger a pullback.
3. The rate of spread is 1.1 or lower. This “R value" -- R stands for reproduction -- is the number of people that one infected person will pass the virus to, on average. It’s a way to measure a disease’s ability to spread. Worldwide, the coronavirus has an R value of about 3.
At the outset of the outbreak, Rhode Island had an R Value between 3 and 4. "We were in such a scary place to be, to be honest,” Raimondo said. But now the state’s R value is 1 or just under 1, she said. “Hats off to Rhode Island,” she said.
The state will consider moving to the next phase if the R value remains at 1.1 or lower, but it will consider moving back a phase if the R value rises to 1.3 to 1.5 or higher.
“The R value is absolutely in our control,” Raimondo said. “If we wear our masks, wash our hands, stay six feet apart, don’t congregate, and stay home if sick.”
She said that if Rhode Islanders continue to follow those rules, she is “very optimistic that we will continue to open our economy.” But, she said, "If we get out there and start to get lazy or lax, then we will start to get into trouble.”
4. Hospitalizations are doubling no less than every 30 days. Medical centers can handle the load if hospitalizations double every 30 days, but if they double every 20 days or less, the state could go back to the previous phase.
On Friday, the number of hospitalizations rose by one -- from 271 to 272. And its hospitalizations doubled in six weeks.
But while hospitalizations are stable or evening declining now, Raimondo said, “I fully expect hospitalizations will go up as we go back to work and kids are at camp.” And if hospitalizations start doubling every 15 or 20 days, the state will have to “take a hard look” at putting restrictions back in place, she said.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Health reported Friday that another 11 Rhode Islanders had died from the coronavirus in the previous 24 hours, and 203 more people had tested positive for COVID-19.
The state death toll now stands at 479, and the number of positive tests now totals 12,219.
Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, the Department of Health director, said the 11 new fatalities include one person in their 60s, four in their 70s, two in their 80s, and four in their 90s.
Rhode Island has 272 people hospitalized with the virus, 63 people in intensive care units, and 41 on ventilators, while 919 people have been discharged from hospitals, according to the Department of Health.
“We continue to see a plateau of around 200 cases a day and a decline in hospitalizations,” Raimondo said.
On Thursday, the US Food and Drug Administration issued an alert warning the public that Abbott Laboratories’ rapid COVID-19 tests -- the test being used in the White House -- may deliver inaccurate results. And that has implications for Rhode Island because the Abbott test is used at the CVS Health rapid-testing site at Twin River, in Lincoln -- a site that helped enable the state to expand its testing capacity.
But Alexander-Scott said the state health laboratory validated and confirmed the accuracy of the Abbott test before it started being used in Rhode Island. And the state has found the positive-test rate of 11 percent at the Twin River site is about the same as the rate at all other test sites in Rhode Island, she said.
Alexander-Scott said the Abbott tests have been “very useful” for Rhode Island, allowing the state to quickly test thousands of residents and get them into quarantine if necessary. “It’s one tool in the tool box,” she said. “And it’s an important one.”
Raimondo announced that she is planning a Facebook Live “town hall” for “older Rhode Islanders,” along with their families and caregivers, at 11 a.m. Thursday. Questions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“This is a really hard time for older adults,” she said. “You know you are the most vulnerable and susceptible. You have to be careful, but yet also you want to live your lives.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com