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As COVID cases spike, state’s leaders say R.I. is in for a difficult January

Governor Dan McKee’s administration outlined the steps it’s taking to deal with soaring case numbers and a strained state health care system

Maya Goode, a COVID-19 technician, steps onto the sidewalk to conduct COVID-19 tests for people waiting outside Asthenis Pharmacy in Providence, R.I., Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.David Goldman/Associated Press

WOONSOCKET, R.I. — Rhode Island shattered records for new COVID-19 cases this week, and could sustain unprecedentedly high numbers of infections through the middle to end of what will be a difficult January, state officials warned Thursday.

But people should stay “calm” and “confident” about the state’s ability to weather the storm.

“Wear your mask, get everyone you love vaccinated and boosted, and limit your exposures, and we will get through this strong,” Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, the director of the state Department of Health, said at a news conference in this northern Rhode Island city Thursday.

Nearly two years into the pandemic, Thursday’s news conference provided an opportunity for Governor Dan McKee’s administration to outline the steps it’s taking to deal with soaring case numbers and a strained state health care system.

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They include:

  • Tapping Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency Director Marc Pappas for a temporary role within McKee’s office heading up the whole-of-government response.
  • Encouraging vaccinations. Monsignor Gadoury Catholic Regional School, where Thursday’s news conference was held, will become a vaccination site.
  • Trying to expand testing, which is facing long delays — the state had “stubbed a toe” on testing, McKee acknowledged, but it’s also been a challenge in other states. McKee’s administration said he’d ordered some test sites open on New Year’s Day, despite earlier plans to close them for the holiday.
  • Looking into whether the Rhode Island National Guard could help at hospitals, which its counterpart is currently doing in Massachusetts. McKee’s office said the Guard was coordinating with hospitals to see how they might be able to help, though no decision on that has been made.
  • Addressing “gouging” by travel nursing companies. McKee said he’d spoken to Labor Secretary Marty Walsh about the exorbitant prices hospitals are having to pay to bring in nurses on a contract basis — in part to replace their own nurses they lost to these lucrative travel nursing jobs — but the governor did not specify what steps might help.
  • Opening the state-controlled Providence public school district on a staggered basis, which will allow students to get tested for COVID-19 before they return. All the same, state officials said districts should remain open to full in-person learning in schools, which have proved safe through the pandemic.

“Over the last 18 months, we’ve learned having students in class, in person, is one of the best ways for academics, but also for a lot of the social-emotional supports,” said Victor Capellan, senior adviser to the state education commissioner. “We have seen the benefits that having students in person brings to the child. That’s what we’re going on.”

Though cases in the state have exploded in the last week of 2021, COVID-19 hospitalizations are still below their peak from last winter. All the same, hospitals are facing enormous pressure because they’re so short-staffed. Nurses and other professionals have left because of burnout or to take those travel nursing positions that are costing hospitals a fortune.

Some doctors have said the McKee administration has not moved quickly or urgently enough to address the crisis. Asked to respond to critics, McKee said in part Thursday that he understood their frustration, but: “I certainly disagree with individuals who think somehow there’s an easy answer to this, an easy response to this. I don’t think they’re really paying attention to the work that we’re doing.”

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He also acknowledged that Rhode Island Hospital in Providence in particular was under stress. A top doctor there said recently that its emergency department and intensive care units are now operating under crisis levels of care. Patients are leaving without being seen or packing waiting rooms.

Said McKee: “The word we’re getting is they are definitely meeting that challenge up to this point.”

Just a few months ago, when cases were in an early-summer lull and he was easing pandemic restrictions, McKee stood under a banner touting 1 million vaccine shots and the reopening of the state’s economy. Thursday’s news conference presented a decidedly different scene: a vacant Catholic school that will soon transform into a vaccination site, and a group of reporters questioning whether the state’s response was fast enough, strong enough, good enough.

But nobody had a crystal ball, McKee said. The state was in a “ramp-down” phase around Thanksgiving, he said. A reporter pushed back on the statement that the state was ramping down around Thanksgiving; McKee stood by it. State data shows that in the week before Thanksgiving, there were about 500 cases of COVID-19 per day. That was an increase from about 200 a month earlier, and around 350 the month before that. In July, the state was reporting only a few dozen cases a day.

Since Thanksgiving, the ramp has led in one direction: up. Monday was the first day the state broke 2,000 cases. Revised data by Thursday showed the state actually had more than 3,000 cases on Monday, and also Tuesday and Wednesday. Tuesday had roughly double last winter’s peak of new COVID-19 cases.

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Though the fast-spreading Omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 may take over at some point, right now health officials estimate only 10 percent of cases are actually that variant. Most are the Delta variant, they said. Though Omicron appears to be milder, and Rhode Island is highly vaccinated, significant upticks in cases will be a challenge and lead to more hospitalizations by sheer number alone, Alexander-Scott said.

Alexander-Scott also said Thursday the state was following the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance on isolation times after testing positive. If people remain symptom-free, they only have to isolate for five days, but should continue wearing a mask and should get tested if they can, Alexander-Scott said.

The decision has proven controversial, but it will be welcome news in the health care industry itself. Hospitals and nursing homes are already dealing with staffing shortages and say they can ill afford to lose more employees for longer than necessary.

“There’s good science behind it,” Dr. Laura Forman, chief of emergency medicine at Care New England’s Kent Hospital, said in an interview Tuesday about the CDC’s change. “From a practical standpoint, I’m ecstatic that we are limiting the amount of time people are out of society because of this.”

Kent Hospital continues to face challenges, she said. On Monday, the 43-bed emergency department had 88 patients in it, Forman said.

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“I haven’t plotted the number of COVID cases we’re seeing on a curve, but I think it would be a fairly straight upward line at this time,” Forman said. “The spread continues to stagger me.”


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.