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CORONAVIRUS

R.I. Governor’s holiday wish list: Everyone gets two COVID-19 tests before New Year’s Day

Raimondo says Rhode Island has allocated all of $1.25 billion it received in federal relief funding

Rhode Island Governor Gina M. Raimondo takes a moment to welcome back state Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, who had been in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19.David DelPoio/The Providence Journal (Pool photo) (Custom credit)

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island has allocated every dime of the $1.25 billion in COVID-19 relief funds it received from the federal government, Governor Gina M. Raimondo said during her weekly coronavirus news conference Tuesday. But there’s still one simple thing everyone can do that’s free and could save lives: Get tested.

“I have a very specific ask for everybody in Rhode Island: Make a plan to get yourself tested twice between now and the end of the year,” Raimondo said. “If you’re a person who celebrates Christmas, get yourself tested before Christmas and after Christmas.”

The state has ramped up COVID-19 testing, with fixed sites such as the Wickford Junction Commuter Rail Station in North Kingstown, R. I., and “pop-up” sites throughout the state, so residents no longer have to wait for days to schedule a test, she said.

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“At this point, there is no excuse not to get a test,” Raimondo said, urging people to go to portal.ri.gov.

She emphasized that getting tested is a crucial step in alerting people that they have the disease, followed by isolating the person who tested positive and notifying people they live or work with to also get tested.

Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the state Department of Health, presented herself as the “poster child” for the benefits of regular testing. She tested positive for COVID-19 nearly two weeks ago and succeeded in keeping the virus from spreading to her family members.

“By getting tested regularly, now and going forward, I was able to effectively protect my household,” Alexander-Scott said. “I was able to identify that I was positive and ensure that no one else around me has tested positive since then.”

She said the three tools “that will take us through to the end of this pandemic” are testing, treatment, and vaccinations.

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So far, 6,400 Rhode Islanders have received the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, Alexander-Scott said. She said data show that both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are effective and safe.

The state expects another 19,000 doses of Moderna vaccine to arrive this week, bringing the total number of delivered doses from both Moderna and Pfizer to 35,000, she said. The state is setting aside 5,000 doses to provide to nursing homes just after Christmas, she said.

Rhode Island is still finalizing the details of a four-phase plan for rolling out the vaccine, Alexander-Scott said, with a focus on making sure the state’s COVID-19 hotspots are protected.

“Rhode Island will be vaccinating people based on their risk level, and we will continue to maintain a focus on equity,” Alexander-Scott said. “We are finalizing plans to vaccinate in Central Falls early on in the vaccination campaign, and we will move on to other ZIP codes and communities that are hardest hit, as well.”

Latino elected leaders in Rhode Island have been calling for Raimondo to make Central Falls and other densely populated areas, in which most of the state’s Latino and Black residents live, a priority for distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.

On Tuesday, the Department of Health reported that another 880 people had tested positive for the virus, bringing the total to 81,187. The state also reported another eight deaths, bringing the death toll to 1,678, and 440 people remained hospitalized.

Latest coronavirus data from the Rhode Island Department of HealthRhode Island Department of Health (Custom credit)

Rhode Island had seen an alarming surge in COVID-19 cases, and at one point the state had the highest infection rate in the country. But Raimondo enacted a three-week “pause” on economic activity, during which certain businesses were forced to close and gatherings were limited, and she said the percent positivity rate for daily testing is coming down.

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The pause was lifted on Monday. When asked if she is concerned that the state will see another surge after Christmas, Raimondo responded: “I am going to be concerned until we are all vaccinated and we are fully out of the woods.”

She pointed out that she enacted restrictions earlier than Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, who on Tuesday announced new temporary restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the virus. He said capacity limits in most industries will be lowered to 25 percent starting Saturday.

“Now Governor Baker chose – and, by the way, I am not criticizing him, because he’s doing a great job running his state and this is brutal to make these decisions – he chose to wait a little bit to hit the pause button,” she said. “I bit the bullet and paused early, and as a result, we are seeing some pretty good results.”

Even after the pause, the state has a lot of restrictions in place, she said.

“I like our chances,” Raimondo said. “If they listen to the regulations, we’re going to be fine. If everyone goes out and has a big Christmas Eve dinner, and Christmas Day, then we’re going to be in trouble, and I’ll have to pause again.”

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During the news conference, Raimondo reviewed how the state spent the $1.25 billion it received in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding from the federal government.

The breakdown included $488.7 million to support businesses, hospitals, and workforce development; $288.1 million for the state government’s response; $129.3 million for testing, contact tracing and other parts of the health response; and $116.8 million for education support.

Coronavirus relief fund spending in Rhode IslandRhode Island Governor's Office (Custom credit)

Raimondo defended sending more than half of the business support went to the state’s hospitals. She said that in the spring, the state asked the hospitals to stop elective surgeries and other procedures so there would be capacity to handle COVID-19 patients, shutting off a major source of hospital revenue.

“We can’t afford for our hospitals, in the middle of a public health crisis, to go out of business,” Raimondo said, pointing out that the Lifespan and Care New England hospital systems are two of the state’s largest employers. “So it’s a balance. I wish I had more.”

Raimondo said state officials are still analyzing how much money will come to Rhode Island as a result of the $900 billion COVID-19 relief package that Congress passed on Monday night.

While more funding will be needed, she said, the package will provide money for testing, vaccines, and the education system, as well as a “substantial” amount for rental assistance, which she said is “desperately needed” in Rhode Island.

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Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.