PROVIDENCE — Rhode Islanders are waiting for four days or more to schedule coronavirus tests amid a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases, state officials said Friday.
“We are doing an enormous amount of testing,” state Department of Health spokesman Joseph Wendelken said. “We are trying to build up the capacity of the response.”
The state reported 13,781 test results on Thursday and 20,134 test results on Wednesday, Wendelken said, noting the results may reflect tests conducted a day or two earlier.
Long lines of cars backed up at the Rhode Island Convention Center testing site on Thursday, in part because no swabbing was done during the Veterans Day holiday on Wednesday, he said.
To accommodate the increased demand, the state this week added about 100 testing slots per day to the Convention Center site. The state also has expanded the hours at testing sites at the Stop & Shop supermarkets in Cumberland and Newport, and it has added a new testing site at the Wickford Junction train station, he said.
The state has five testing sites, including the Convention Center, the two supermarkets, Wickford Junction, and on Block Island. There is alsoanother site dedicated to testing residents of Central Falls and Pawtucket – two hot spots for the outbreak.
“We are constantly evaluating,” Wendelken said. “It’s possible we will open more testing sites.”
The state also has 15 testing sites dedicated to testing students and staff in kindergarten through 12th grade, and those tests can be scheduled much more quickly, he said. Plus, the state contains another 25 to 30 other private testing sites, including pharmacies and urgent care centers.
The state is starting to make greater use of the BinaxNOW rapid tests, Wendelken said. The state has about 40,000 of those testing kits, and they are being used “in strategic ways," especially for people who are unable to get to testing sites, he said.
While it can take four days or so to schedule a test, it takes another three or four days to get test results. So a resident who wants to get tested could end up waiting more than a week to find out if they have COVID-19.
On Friday, the Department of Health reported another 710 positive cases and four deaths. The state has 250 people hospitalized with the virus, 27 in intensive care, and 14 on ventilators.
During a news conference on Thursday, Governor Gina M. Raimondo said the state is about three weeks away from reaching full hospital capacity because of a surge that has infected some 7,000 residents since Nov. 1.
Raimondo said the state is preparing to open a field hospital solely for coronavirus patients in Cranston within the next couple of weeks. And she issued a call for more health care workers, saying, "This is very real. We are in a terrible spot.”
Wendelken said the state could add another 350 beds by opening the field hospital that is ready for use in a former Citizen’s Bank building in Cranston.
When the outbreak was subsiding, the state took down two other field hospitals that had been set up at the Convention Center and at a former Lowe’s building in North Kingstown. But the Convention Center field hospital “has not been completely demobilized,” Wendelken said. “We would need to do work, but we could get it up and running.”
Meanwhile, an increasing number of schools are shifting to remote instruction because of the COVID-19 surge.
Cranston, the state’s second largest city, announced that all students would take part in distance learning from Nov. 12 at least through Monday.
“The move to distance learning is a result of the abundance of cases of COVID-19 that have been reported to us in recent days,” Cranston school officials said on the district website. “The situation in our city and our school district is not unlike the situation our state is facing as cases surge.”
Cranston school officials said the responsibility for contact tracing is now being shifted from the state to the school departments.
“We are doing our best to keep up with that task,” they said. “However, as cases of staff who are positive, quarantined or in the process of being tested have increased greatly, staffing has become difficult to maintain and predict.”
Wendelken said the Department of Health is still doing contact tracing, but there have been discussions about partnering more with schools to make the process more efficient.
Raimondo has repeatedly faced questions about why schools remain open as cases continue to rise, but she said there isn’t a “shred of evidence” that schools are a vector of spread. And she has emphasized that students face a variety of negative consequences from being stuck at home with remote instruction.
Wendelken said the state is aware that some schools are “hitting pause” for a few days of remote instruction, but he said, “We are driving that with a recommendation from a public health perspective.” He said studies have shown that the virus is not spreading widely in the “structured environment” of schools, where students are required to wear masks and maintain social distance, he said.
But Cranston is not the only school district halting in-person instruction.
Tim Ryan, lobbyist for the Rhode Island School Superintendents Association, said he believes some schools in Coventry, West Warwick, Chariho, and Cumberland also have shifted to remote instruction, joining schools in places such as Central Falls, Warwick, and Pawtucket.
“Nobody wants the kids in school more than we do,” Ryan said Friday. “And we recognize that the research shows schools are not a big source of the spread.”
But he said the pandemic poses “a huge challenge” for superintendents, especially when it comes to containing the spread in high schools where students move between classrooms more often.
Ryan said the Department of Health this week placed additional contact tracing burdens on school districts, and school officials declined to sign forms that would have increased their potential liability if certain requirements were not met.
“You have the governor and the Department of Health meeting, but the superintendents are not at the table when they are the ones who have to make it work,” Ryan said. “It’s just another example of the superintendents not being in on the decisions when the decisions are made, and then we have to pick up the pieces.”