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RI HEALTH

Is R.I. past its COVID peak? Health officials call downward trend ‘encouraging’

On Jan. 18, Rhode Island reported 2,701 new COVID-19 cases -- less than half of the 6,735 new cases reported on Jan. 5, the highest day on record so far

Maya Goode, a COVID-19 technician, performs a test on Jessica Sanchez outside Asthenis Pharmacy in Providence, R.I., Dec. 7, 2021.David Goldman/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island COVID cases are still higher than they’ve ever been at any point before this winter, but they’re heading consistently downward, a potential but uncertain sign that the latest virus wave is finally ebbing.

“Yes, we have seen an encouraging decrease in our case numbers,” said Department of Health spokesman Joseph Wendelken in an email. “But we know that there are natural fluctuations in case numbers, so it may be a little premature to officially say that we are beyond our peak for this wave. Our team is continuing to monitor this closely.”

The statistics: On Tuesday, Rhode Island reported 2,701 new COVID-19 cases. Before this winter, that would have been a huge number — the highest peak a year ago was about 1,600.

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But Tuesday’s peak is less than half of the 6,735 new cases on Jan. 5, the highest day on record so far. The data is always revised in the days that follow, so that 2,701 number is likely to rise, but unlikely to leap by thousands.

Weekly trends in cases are also pointing down: The average test positivity rate in the week ending Jan. 15 was 18.7 percent. That’s high, but not as high as the 21.2 percent reported the week before. In Tuesday’s data, released Wednesday, it was 12.7 percent.

COVID deaths and hospitalizations present a more nuanced picture: The state has reported 125 COVID-19-related deaths so far in January, nearly eclipsing last month’s 152 already. That’s still significantly lower than the 515 COVID-19 deaths reported in December 2020, before vaccines were available and when fewer cases were reported. In other words, fewer people are dying of COVID-19 both in general, and as a percentage of identified cases.

Hospitalizations, though, are higher than they’ve ever been, albeit only slightly and they appear to have plateaued somewhat. On Tuesday 547 people were in a Rhode Island hospital with COVID-19. (The state is planning to soon separate out the number of people who need to be hospitalized for COVID-19, or people who are there for other reasons but have COVID-19.) The state has reported more than 500 people in the hospital just about every day this month, which was the previous high water mark.

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But the numbers show early glimpses of leveling off. They are at Lifespan, the state’s largest hospital system, according to Dr. Leonard Mermel, an infectious diseases specialist and medical director of the department of epidemiology and infection control at Lifespan.

“We’re starting to see a glimmer of hope in terms of things going in a direction that’s most welcome,” Mermel said.

Like the state as a whole, Lifespan — which includes the Rhode Island, Newport and Miriam acute-care adult hospitals — is still seeing a lot of COVID. The number of hospitalizations there are about three times the level of Dec. 1, even as they were down about 15 to 20 percent from a recent peak before they started turning around in the last week or so, Mermel said.

The issues in the hospital systems in Rhode Island go beyond COVID, with critical staffing shortages. So an easing of the virus burden alone won’t solve the broader problems, even as it will relieve some pressure.

Mermel had at one point planned a celebration for the day over the summer of 2021 that they hit zero COVID patients. That never happened.

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Will it ever? New variants could emerge, Mermel noted. So he sees the wave ebbing, even as he keeps an eye on what’s ahead.

“There’s a Yiddish expression – man plans, and God laughs,” Mermel said. “And I think I’ll stick with that.”

Alexa Gagosz of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


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