CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — Central Falls, the tiny city that emerged as a major hot spot at the outset of the pandemic, is once again aflame with COVID-19 infections.
The rate of new COVID-19 cases in Central Falls shot up to 2,378 per 100,000 residents during the week of Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 — the highest rate in the state and nearly triple the rate of 635 per 100,000 just a week earlier, according to the latest state Department of Health data.
That rate reflects 461 cases in one week in Central Falls, a densely populated 1.2-square-mile city of triple-deckers and 22,583 people. The positive-test rate for those tested in Central Falls during that week was 32.5 percent — the highest rate in the state and nearly triple the prior week’s rate of 11.3 percent, the data show.
“When Central Falls starts to burn, it burns hot,” said Dr. Michael Fine, chief health strategist for the city of Central Falls.
But the virus is scorching the rest of the state, as well. On Thursday, the Department of Health reported another 5,373 new cases statewide, with a positive-test rate of 18.1 percent, five more deaths, and 434 people hospitalized.
Fine, a former state Department of Health director, predicts Rhode Island will be seeing 25,000 to 50,000 new cases of COVID-19 per day by next week and that the Omicron variant will infect more than one-third of the state’s population.
“We are not going to be able to stop the spread very well at this point,” Fine said. “It’s just too late.”
The state needed to start taking steps to halt the spread earlier, he said.
“As a state, we have to admit to ourselves that the horse is out of the barn, that the Maginot Line has been breached, although, because we didn’t require masks and continued to keep bars and restaurants open, we really never had a Maginot line,” he wrote in an online essay.
But now, Fine said, “We have to focus on saving lives.”
The way to do that, he said, is to make sure that everyone over 65 with symptoms or chronic disease can get access to monoclonal antibodies or anti-viral treatments as soon as they get sick. He said the people at greatest risk continue to be the elderly and those with chronic disease, with people over 60 accounting for 91 percent of the deaths in Rhode Island.
The state should keep providing vaccinations and booster shots to as many people as possible as quickly as possible, Fine said. While it’s too late for vaccines to prevent the spread of the virus, the shots still protect the vaccinated, he said.
The state made Central Falls a priority for vaccinations after the initial outbreak, and the city managed to make substantial progress against the virus. As recently as the week of Sept. 19-25, the positive-test rate in Central Falls stood at a mere 1.9 percent.
But a December surge left residents waiting for hours in the cold for COVID-19 tests.
While a new testing site opened in the city on Monday, Fine emphasized that testing does not stop the progression of the disease. “We know community transmission is extremely high everywhere in the state already, so we don’t need more testing to tell us what we already know,” he said.
Plus, Fine said, the state lacks the resources to do meaningful contact tracing once it gets much beyond 50 new cases per day. And it’s now facing more than 5,000 new cases per day.
“It’s just dumb to have people wait outside, in the cold, for four hours to get tested, because Omicron is so transmissible that we are likely be spreading the disease by having people wait in those lines, even outside and masked,” he wrote.
Instead, Fine said, the state should focus on testing those who meet criteria for receiving monoclonal antibody and anti-viral medications. And he called for the creation of “flying squads” consisting of those who have been doing testing and contact tracing, plus members of the Rhode Island National Guard. In groups of two, they could go to the homes of high-risk residents displaying symptoms to conduct tests and get them started on monoclonal antibodies or antivirals, he said.
Fine also called for re-establishing the kind of 1-800 “Beat COVID” hotline that provided multilingual support to Central Falls and Pawtucket residents last year.
Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera said she “sounded the alarm” in late December when Central Falls residents began running into long lines for COVID-19 testing. She said she and Representative Joshua J. Giraldo, a Central Falls Democrat, asked Governor Daniel J. McKee and other state officials to witness the situation and work on solutions.
The Department of Health donated 2,500 at-home COVID-19 test kits, where were immediately distributed, Rivera said. The city is ramping up vaccine clinics to every weekend this month, she said.
And McKee announced that the state-run test site at Blackstone Valley Community Health Care moved into the former Rite Aid building on Broad Street in Central Falls on Monday, administering 1,800 tests on its first day.
Meanwhile, Rivera said, the city is trying to address “structural inequities” highlighted by this pandemic. For example, it’s seeking $4 million in site acquisition funding from the state to build more 200 units of housing. The lack of safe, affordable housing is a major factor in the rapid spread of the virus in the city, she said.
“We need to do all we can right now — across the board — to help our city get through this pandemic,” Rivera said.