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RI HEALTH

COVID-19 is worse than official data show, former R.I. health department official says

The former acting co-director of the Health Department’s Health Equity Institute criticized Governor Dan McKee for dismantling protections and ignoring the severity of current surge

The latest data on COVID-19 in Rhode Island from the state Department of Health.Handout

PROVIDENCE — A former high-level employee at the Rhode Island Department of Health says that COVID-19 cases have been on the rise for months in Rhode Island, but the information has been hidden in the official data and ignored by Governor Daniel McKee, whom he accuses of incompetence.

Julian Drix, who was the acting co-director of the Health Department’s Health Equity Institute and in charge of the coordinated COVID response for Central Falls and Pawtucket, told the Globe on Friday that McKee’s administration dismantled the infrastructure that helped Rhode Island respond to and prevent the spread of COVID-19. Now, Drix says, Rhode Island is more vulnerable during this surge — and the problems exposed by the pandemic are straining the health care system.

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Drix left state employment in April and is now a project director for Human Impact Partners, a national organization. But he spoke out on Twitter on Thursday — just before the state Health Department reported that COVID-19 levels in four of Rhode Island’s five counties are now at “high” levels. Drix said that Rhode Islanders should know that McKee is not listening to Health experts and has not learned from his mistakes.

“I think it’s a sentiment that’s shared broadly, not just in RIDOH, but across the government and community organizations. ... It’s the worst-kept secret in the state, but so few say it publicly,” Drix told the Globe. “The frustration in the current moment is, it’s deja vu all over again, here we go again. We saw this coming.”

“Actual infections are *way* worse than the official stats. Wastewater testing from biobot is showing levels as high or higher than the peak levels from Omicron in early January,” he tweeted, linking to data from May 15. “But this time it’s 99% Omicron BA.2, and its hidden in official case stats.”

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With Bristol, Kent, Providence, and Washington counties rising from “medium” to “high” levels as defined by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Interim Health director Dr. James McDonald is now recommending wearing a mask in public indoor settings and getting a booster vaccine.

McDonald is leading RIDOH after former director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott resigned early this year, as did deputy director Tom McCarthy. Both Alexander-Scott and McCarthy had been appointed by then-governor Gina M. Raimondo. Alexander-Scott has a three-month consulting contract with the state; she did not respond to a request for comment. McCarthy declined comment.

Drix said that, unlike Raimondo, McKee has been largely uninvolved with the COVID response. When the governor is involved, “he’d undercut and critique, he is slashing budgets, he doesn’t want to hear about it and is really difficult to engage with.”

Drix said the numbers are a warning that Rhode Island is entering another surge. “The difference is that compared to previous surges, the things we had in place to mitigate it are not in place,” he said, “and the other difference is we have much less capacity to track and understand what’s happening and where.”

In March, Drix said, the state ended the contracts of about 100 people who worked mainly in epidemiology operations, performing case investigations and tracking, contact tracing, and assistance with the quarantine and isolation program.

That program was started by the Raimondo Administration to help vulnerable families with cash assistance and groceries while they had to quarantine. Drix said that was important for people in immigrant and working class communities who couldn’t afford to stay home and would have otherwise avoided getting tested. “It was really, really necessary. We tried so hard to make the case, but the McKee Administration said it was duplicative of what HHS has and what SNAP is for, and they canceled it,” he said.

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Drix said that McKee has brushed away warnings from experts at Health about the ripple effect of ending programs and not having enough testing capacity for the surges. They’d warned McKee about the potential for crisis in Central Falls last December, but the governor didn’t act until Mayor Maria Rivera tweeted about the long lines for tests.

When asked about Drix’s comments, Rivera steered clear of the controversy. “Our city has been meeting routinely with RIDOH team members since early 2021 to closely monitor COVID-19 in our dense, highly-impacted community, with their health experts serving as an important resource to us,” she said. “My focus is on supporting our residents through this current spike in cases — encouraging masking, testing, and vaccinations.”

Drix said COVID is spiking because protections are no longer in place.

“The story is if you are vaccinated, it’s not going to matter. But long COVID is a reality, it’s potentially devastating,” Drix said.

“The thing I’m most concerned about is the wave of disability and long COVID hitting us and knowing our social safety net for workers is already insufficient and at a breaking point, and there’s no way to handle what’s coming,” he said. “That’s a major issue that’s not being framed for people because it’s politically inconvenient.”

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In response, McKee’s press secretary Alana O’Hare said that the increases in COVID-19 levels were not unexpected. “As Dr. McDonald has said, COVID-19 is now a largely preventable and treatable endemic disease because of the tools we have to keep ourselves and our families safe,” she said in a statement Friday.

Thirty-three percent of Rhode Islanders currently hospitalized with COVID-19 are there directly because of the virus, and the number of new COVID-19 associated fatalities are significantly lower than at other times in the pandemic, O’Hare said. She said that Rhode Island is tied for second-highest booster rate in the country.

“The response to an endemic disease is very different than the response to a pandemic disease, and Rhode Island’s response is in line with most other states across the country,” O’Hare said.

She said the state had planned to maintain centralized testing, treatment and vaccination operations at the state level temporarily, and has adjusted staffing levels throughout the pandemic, depending on the status of the virus. The strategy has shifted with some state-run testing sites and partnerships with local pharmacies and primary care providers.

“When vaccines and therapeutics became available, states started planning for how to integrate COVID-19 into the traditional practice of medicine,” O’Hare said. “Traditional healthcare settings are where patients are most comfortable getting care, and it is where care is most effectively and comprehensively provided.”

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Globe staff writer Ed Fitzpatrick contributed to this report.


Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.