CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — “COVID-19 is back in Rhode Island.”
No one wants to hear that message, Dr. Michael Fine acknowledged on Monday. But the former state Health Department director, who is now chief health strategist for Central Falls, said it’s crucial that people hear it because this densely populated 1.2-square-mile city has long been the state’s “canary in the coal mine,” warning of impending surges in the virus.
And Central Falls is now seeing the number of cases rise, reflecting a wider trend, he said.
“It’s back,” Fine wrote on his website. “Our testing numbers are up, hospitalizations have doubled, some test sites in Central Falls are running 25 percent positive, and some schools in Central Falls have lost so many staff to illness that they are talking about whether they need to close for five to 10 days.”
A city of 22,583, Central Falls recorded 43 new COVID-19 cases during the week of May 1-7 – up from 12 cases the week of April 3-9 and the most cases in a single week since Jan. 30-Feb. 5, according to the latest data from the state Department of Health.
On Monday, the Department of Health reported 318 new cases statewide, 83 people hospitalized with the virus, and one new death. The trend lines for new cases and new hospital admissions are pointing upward.
“Central Falls usually gets hit first,” Fine wrote. “We had about three months of quiet, and something like temporary herd immunity.”
Indeed, during the week of March 6-12, Central Falls saw just 10 positive tests – equal to the number of cases in rural North Smithfield. And that dramatic drop prompted Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera to schedule a pair of the city’s popular Salsa Nights for later this summer.
But now that herd immunity appears to have worn off, and the virus is back, Fine said. “I hate this,” he wrote. “I don’t know what my colleagues in public health in Rhode Island are free to say, so I’m saying it: It’s here.” And he warned that graduations and proms could be come “super-spreader events.”
When asked for a response Monday, the Department of Health described the situation in less stark terms.
“With COVID-19 now an endemic disease in Rhode Island, we should expect moderate increases and decreases in our COVID-19 levels over the coming months,” spokesman Joseph Wendelken said. “Fortunately, unlike at prior points in the pandemic, we now have an ample supply of vaccine, treatment, and testing resources. For this reason, we don’t expect our case numbers and hospitalization numbers to reach the levels of January’s surge.”
But it’s still “critical” that people take advantage of vaccines and treatments, he said.
“Anyone who is not up to date on their COVID-19 vaccine should get up to date today,” Wendelken said. “A booster dose makes you 55 times less likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19. Similarly, treatment is extremely effective at preventing serious illness from COVID-19. Ask your healthcare provider right away about treatment if you test positive for COVID-19.”
Fine noted Rhode Island is the state with the highest rate of COVID-19 cases in the country, at 72 cases per 100,000 people, reflecting a 59 percent increase in the past 14 days, according to latest New York Times coronavirus map and case count. Massachusetts has the second highest rate at 61 cases per 100,000.
Wendelken said Rhode Island has done more testing than almost all other states, and it is a very densely populated state.
Also, Rhode Island is the state with the highest vaccination rate, with 83 percent of residents fully vaccinated, according to the New York Times data. That ties Rhode Island with Guam and trails only behind American Samoa.
Fine said Rhode Island can expect the BA.2.12.1 variant to continue to spread because “we’ve given up masking and social distancing prematurely, thanks to our political leadership and our politics.”
As a result, he said, many people will get sick and hospitalizations in Rhode Island will probably double or triple.
“Deaths will resume, but less than before, I hope,” Fine wrote. “I’d expect 50 to 100 Rhode Island deaths in May, but that’s just a wild guess. It’s too early to have enough data to make good projections.” Most deaths will be among older residents and those who still have not received vaccines or booster shots, he said.
For most people, the challenge will be continuing to operate schools, stores, police forces, fire departments, and other organizations as people get sick, Fine said.
But this latest surge could be over in two or three weeks, he said. “So we are not talking about forever,” he wrote, urging people to take precautions for a few weeks until this wave passes.
“I’m going to be a broken record about what we can do to stop this,” Fine wrote. “Start today. Mask again everywhere that is inside and a public place. Stop shopping. Be together only outside. Avoid bars and restaurants. Avoid big events and venues. Test frequently and before any gathering.”
In an interview, Fine said government officials don’t need to issue mandates. “Just tell people it’s out there and ask them to use their heads,” he said. “We are a nation and state of reasonable people.”
He said his essay reflects his viewpoint but that he has provided similar advice to Central Falls.
On Monday, Mayor Rivera issued a statement, saying, “Through our Office of Constituent Services and Health, as well as my office, we are educating residents about the latest COVID case increases and encouraging residents to wear masks indoors (particularly around groups), reminding them of the importance of getting vaccinated and boosted, and encouraging testing.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.