R.I. still playing catch-up in hitting goals for testing

The state has not yet been able to implement the sort of widespread testing that Gov. Gina Raimondo says will provide the path forward to opening up the economy again. But on Tuesday, she set a goal of performing 600 to 800 tests a day by next week.

TO OUR READERS: This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. Sign up for our daily or breaking newsletters to stay informed. Please support local journalism by subscribing to The Providence Journal.

Josh Maurer started feeling sick the evening of Friday the 13th, a day after returning to his home in Providence from work trips to Florida and North Carolina as the Boston College basketball radio broadcaster.

The next day, he woke up with what he thought was a fever. That afternoon his breathing felt strange. He looked up the symptoms: fever and shortness of breath were among the leading symptoms of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

“I thought, ‘Oh God, no, really?’” he recalled.

But he still hasn’t been able to answer that pressing question. Maurer, who is also the radio broadcaster for the Pawtucket Red Sox, hasn’t been able to get tested. He is in his late 30s, with no underlying health conditions and relatively mild symptoms. He isn’t in any of the priority categories for coronavirus testing in Rhode Island — health-care workers, people admitted to the hospital and people who live in a group setting like a nursing home.

So doctors have told him to assume he has it, he said. He has hunkered down in his home for the last 11 days to recover, without knowing for sure what he’s recovering from.

That has left him uncertain about what the future holds, and grasping for answers: Without a clear idea of how many people have the disease, how can we even begin to effectively deal with it?

“To me, it’s so dangerous that the government is making decisions on how strict our regulations need to be in this state without having any real idea of how many people are infected,” Maurer said in a telephone interview. “Can you imagine how many people are out there like me?”

Maurer’s situation sheds light on a national problem that’s also playing out in Rhode Island: amid a crisis compounded by shortages of kits, swabs and other testing gear, the state has not yet been able to implement the sort of widespread testing that Gov. Gina Raimondo says will provide the path forward to opening up the economy again.

Rhode Island doctors, some publicly and others privately, chafe at having to send patients home without being tested when they don’t meet the priority criteria.

Raimondo sounded hopeful notes on Tuesday, though, outlining a goal to do between 600 and 800 tests a day in a week.

It’s difficult to track Rhode Island’s overall progress on testing. Private and hospital labs are now also doing testing here, but they have only been reporting their positive results to the state, not the negative or pending ones.

Massachusetts only just recently started releasing data on every lab, and on Tuesday reported a significant jump in the number of tests there: 4,827 new tests since Monday, bringing the total to 13,749, according to WBUR. Massachusetts has 1,159 total cases.

Rhode Island’s state labs can do more than 200 tests a day, but the state itself has not been consistently hitting that mark, according to Department of Health data; the number of overall tests rose by just 13 from Saturday into Sunday, and by 160 Monday into Tuesday.

But overall in Rhode Island, with private and hospital labs swinging into action, there are now more tests taking place than there were a week ago, according to Dr. James McDonald, a state Department of Health official.

And more are on the way, he said.

“We want to get to a place in the next few weeks where if you want to be tested, you can be tested,” McDonald said.

That’s not happening anywhere nationally due to factors beyond the control of any state, McDonald said, but “I do see optimism on that increasing.”

“We still think it’s possible at this point to contain this,” he said in a phone interview.

READ: Questions and answers about COVID-19, the coronavirus disease

The state does not have community-wide sustained transmission, McDonald said. There’s some community transmission, but much of it is related to travel, both international and domestic, he said.

Testing is important not just for people’s peace of mind. It helps health experts pinpoint areas that need the most attention, allowing for more precise restrictions than the broad lockdowns in place in some areas of the country. South Korea’s robust testing has been credited with helping that country keep a handle on its coronavirus problem.

The per capita rate of testing in South Korea is 30 times the rate in the U.S., according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Professor Marc Lipsitch, writing in The Washington Post Monday. States like Massachusetts were “filling the vacuum left by the complete absence of federal leadership,” Lipsitch wrote.

In a news conference in Providence on Tuesday, Raimondo noted that the testing conundrum is not unique to Rhode Island, which is now scouring the world for supplies, from the testing kits themselves to the swabs that are inserted up patients’ noses to the protective gear that people need to wear while they’re collecting them.

“It’s a challenge,” Raimondo acknowledged.

Rhode Island reported 1,463 total coronavirus tests on Tuesday, 160 more than Monday. With Tuesday afternoon’s announcement of 18 new cases, Rhode Island’s total positive cases rose to 124, a figure that includes private and hospital labs.

The goal: 600 to 800 tests a day by this time next week.

“I believe we’re going to get there,” Raimondo said. “That is absolutely vital to happen before I reopen the economy.”

Private companies like Contech Medical Inc. have stepped up to make donations of things like testing swabs. The state has a website for donating supplies.

Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, the director of the state Department of Health, on Tuesday advised anyone with symptoms to assume that they have COVID-19, even if they haven’t been able to get tested.

Alexander-Scott said someone can be considered negative if at least seven days have passed since symptoms appeared, and if they’ve had three days of improvement of symptoms, including their fever being resolved, without taking any medication.

Testing, Alexander-Scott said, was “slowly ramping up.”

“Until then, it’s important for patients to know that the treatment is still the same,” Alexander-Scott said. “If someone has cold symptoms, consider it similar to COVID-19 and follow these instructions of staying home and recovering safely if you are ill.”

Maurer, the PawSox and BC broadcaster, said Tuesday he was feeling better, hopeful that he was finally turning a corner after a week and a half of fevers and chills and profound exhaustion.

But knowing whether or not he had the disease would help him determine how he has to live his life in the future. The science isn’t entirely clear on this point yet, but people who have the disease and recover from it might become immune to it in the future.

If he does have COVID-19, Maurer also isn’t sure when he picked it up, and when he might have been contagious. He shudders to think of whether he got anyone else sick, he said. But it can take days for symptoms to show up, and even longer to get tested. Sometimes, like in his case, testing isn’t available at all.

“If anybody in civic leadership or in the state government or on the local level is making a decision based on what they know today, they’re wrong,” Maurer said. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

— With reporting from Tom Mooney and Patrick Anderson

bamaral@providencejournal.com

(401) 277-7615

On Twitter: bamaral44

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *