COVID-19 CRISIS

THE LATEST: K-12 schools moving to 'distance learning'

10 new COVID-19 cases in RI; Raimondo says state 'still a step ahead' of virus

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As health officials announced the identification of 10 new positive COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo on Wednesday said the state’s K-12 public schools will move to a “distance learning” approach from March 23 through at least April 3.

And while she reiterated an earlier statement that the state’s response to the current health crisis compares favorably to that seen in other locations, she said daily life will not return to normal for the foreseeable future – and that it is “very unlikely” students will return to physical classrooms when the initial two-week remote learning window ends.

“It would be dishonest of me to tell the people of Rhode Island that we know the date by which this will be over,” she said during what has become a daily briefing. “So we’re taking this a day at a time … We’re still a step ahead, and we need to do everything we can to stay ahead of the virus.”

She added: “After two weeks, we will evaluate how it’s going … [for the] remainder of the school year.”

Raimondo said moving toward remote instruction was a “tough decision” and that it will be “tough to execute.” She had previously ordered schools closed for the current week, moving up April vacation to buy time for additional preparations.

Her latest announcement came just two days after other sweeping directives aimed at curbing the spread of the virus, including a prohibition on gatherings of 25 people or more and an order for bars, restaurants and other food establishments to end dine-in service for the next two weeks.

On Wednesday, the governor cited feedback from educators and others in favor of attempting the distance learning approach and said that Rhode Island will be the first state to take such a step.

“Many other states have just thrown in the towel … But I’m not yet willing to throw in the towel, because I think some learning is better than no learning,” she said.

Public school districts across the state are being required to submit distance learning plans to the Rhode Island Department of Education, with a deadline of March 19. On Wednesday, Raimondo said the majority of district had already done so, while Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green said the state is “sharing plans that we think are strong” for potential use as models.

Infante-Green said Cox Communications is working with RIDE to help ensure the required resources – including internet service and computers – are in place for families that may not currently have access. She also said the company has agreed to assist schools and educators through the process.

The governor and commissioner said the needs of various student groups – including English language learners and those with special needs – are being taken into account as the state moves toward a remote instruction model.

“We have made it a priority to have their well being and safety met … We’re a team. We’re getting this done together. That’s the only way that we’re going to be successful,” Infante-Green said.

10 new cases; state’s approach to testing

The new COVID-19 cases announced Wednesday represent that largest single-day jump yet in the state’s overall tally, which now stands at 33.

Raimondo and Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott on Wednesday said such increases have been expected and will continue, particularly as the state’s testing capacity continues to grow.

“We’re not even a little surprised. This is going to grow. People should not be surprised … There’s nothing we could do to stop [the virus] dead in its tracks such that there’s not going to be more cases. Everything we’re doing is to try to slow the rate of growth,” the governor said.

She added: “We wouldn’t be canceling school and shutting down the economy unless we thought that was absolutely, 100 percent necessary.”

Alexander-Scott said the latest people to test positive for the virus range in age from their 20s to their 70s. Seven are female and three are male. Four were hospitalized, and it was expected one would be discharged later Wednesday. The others were all said to be recovering at home.

Alexander-Scott said some of the latest cases have been tied to travel to various European destinations, including Iceland, the Netherlands, Spain, England and France. She reiterated statements from earlier this week, however, that health officials now consider Rhode Island to have community transmission of the virus due to difficulties in immediately identifying the chain of infection in some of the more recent cases.

According to Department of Health figures from Wednesday afternoon, 540 people had thus far tested negative for COVID-19. Test results for another 334 remained pending.

Approximately 2,500 people – including the nearly 1,700 members of the community at Cranston High School West, where a student tested positive last week – remained in self-quarantine.

The state’s approach to COVID-19 testing continues to focus on three key groups, Alexander-Scott said – hospitalized patients, health care workers and emergency medical personnel, and residents of nursing homes or similar “congregant settings.”

The state has the ability to conduct expedited testing for people in those groups, she said, with results typically available within no more than 24 hours. That is designed to prevent further strain on the state’s health care system and avoid larger outbreaks among at-risk segments of the community.

During Tuesday’s briefing, she said with regard to additional testing: “We have sites that are up and ready to go … But because of these inadequate preparation and because of what every state is experiencing in terms of the back order of swabs, we have to deal with the people that are the highest risk right now.”

On Wednesday, Alexander-Scott reiterated previous guidance that for people experiencing mild or moderate symptoms associated with the virus, a formal diagnosis through a test will not change the recommended course of treatment. Those people, she said, are advised to self-quarantine and recover at home.

“The key element no matter what is to continue the containment process,” she said, which includes conducting contact tracing and quarantining.

New measures announced

During Wednesday’s briefing, Raimondo announced two additional measures related to the current crisis.

The governor said a previous executive order mandating that health insurers cover telehealth services for primary and behavioral care has been expanded to include specialists and all other care providers. The order essentially requires that insurers cover all health care services conducted by phone or video at the same rate as in-person visits.

Raimondo additionally said the Public Utilities Commission has issued an emergency order barring the termination of key utility services – electricity, gas, water and sewer – for any reason during the ongoing crisis, with an exception for safety issues. Utility companies will also be prohibited from sending past-due accounts to collections agencies as the situation continues.

“We’re hearing a lot of concern from folks who are out of work. It’s going to get tough to pay the bills … Nobody should have to worry about the lights going off, the water going off,” she said.

She added: “If you’re in a position to pay your bills, please pay your bills. This is not a blanket excuse to not pay your bills … This is a time for good faith, good intentions and doing the right thing.”

Additionally, the state has adjusted its health care provider licensing policy, allowing doctors, nurses and others who hold a license in good standing from another state to obtain a temporary, 90-day license to practice in Rhode Island. The licenses will have a turnaround time of one to two days and are available at no cost. They can be renewed for an additional 90-day period, also at no cost.

The following items include new announcements and highlights from this week’s statewide COVID-19 briefings:

On Monday, Raimondo announced that the state’s Department of Human Services, Department of Labor and Training and HealthSource RI would move to online and telephone service only until further notice.

For the Division of Motor Vehicles, driving tests have been canceled through the week and all satellite offices have been closed. The DMV’s main location in Cranston has temporarily suspended driver’s license and registration services, and expirations of those documents will be extended for 30 days.

Limited services will remain available at the Cranston branch through the week, but “Rhode Islanders are encouraged not to go to the DMV this week unless absolutely necessary,” according to a press release. Starting on March 23, DMV services will be available by appointment only.

As the number of applications for unemployment insurance and other assistance such as Temporarily Disability Insurance continue to rise – nearly 20,000 for unemployment alone between March 9 and March 17, according to Department of Labor and Training figures – Raimondo on Wednesday urged Rhode Islanders to apply for assistance if needed.

The unemployment fund, she said, is “in very good shape” – although she continue to urge federal authorities to take action on economic stimulus and other aid to states.

“As you can imagine, the unemployment insurance claims that we are seeing are unprecedented and are skyrocketing. We will pay them all … If you need to file for unemployment insurance, file, and have confidence that your claims will be paid,” she said.

Alexander-Scott on Tuesday called on dental offices to suspend nonessential and non-urgent care for the next 21 days.

On Wednesday, she and Raimondo additionally urged gyms and fitness centers to close. In terms of barbershops and hair salons, they said officials are not recommending “across the board” closures but are asking patrons to avoid such establishments if they are crowded and instead return at a different time.

“We are asking everyone to sacrifice and think about the health and well being of Rhode Island as a community right now,” Alexander-Scott said.

The health director also advised on Tuesday that the state’s prohibition on large gatherings extends to funerals, wakes and memorial services. While it is a “hard message to deliver,” she said, she spoke of the risks to older people and those with underlying medical issues who are present in larger crowds. She urged mourners to explore other means of participating in services, such as through live streaming.

 Alexander-Scott asked residents to refrain from calling 911 unless necessary to avoid placing additional strain on the health care system during a difficult time.

She stressed, however: “If someone is experiencing a genuine medical emergency … absolutely call 911.”

A range of community and business-driven efforts to provide relief to those affected by COVID-19 drew plaudits from Raimondo on Wednesday.

West Warwick’s Bradford Soap Works is donating 70,000 bars of soap to be distributed through the Rhode Island Community Food Bank and Family Service of Rhode Island. The Diocese of Providence is providing Shop & Stop gift cards to those out of work due to the crisis.

On Tuesday, the Rhode Island Foundation and United Way of Rhode Island announced the establishment of a COVID-19 Response Fund to support nonprofits during the crisis. It has already raised $1.5 million as of Tuesday with a number of corporate sponsors. Donations can be made at uwriweb.org/Covid19Fund or by texting RICOVID19 to 51555.

“That money’s going to be directed to the most vulnerable in Rhode Island … The folks getting hit the hardest are the ones who can least afford to take the hit,” Raimondo said.

Raimondo on Monday signed an executive order “allowing all Rhode Island public entities to conduct meetings online or over the phone and extending the timeline for public records requests,” according to a press release.

“The Attorney General’s Office worked with the Governor’s team and other stakeholders on identifying these appropriate temporary measures for both the Open Meetings Act and the Access to Public Records Act to ensure that government can continue to operate as openly and transparently as possible,” the release states. “The Attorney General’s Office will continue to serve as a resource for guidance and advice regarding these statutes going forward.”

Raimondo announced Tuesday that Microsoft has agreed to make its Office 365 services available to all Rhode Island businesses free of charge for the next sixth months. The hope is that the tool will make it easier for businesses of all sizes to allow employees to work from home. The governor said additional information is available at doit.ri.gov or by calling the Rhode Island Commerce Corp. at 521-HELP.

“I want to particularly thank all [businesses] who are allowing your employees to work from home and paying your employees … If you can do it, it’s the best thing to do for your employees, for public health, and for our economy,” she said.

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