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PROVIDENCE – With the goal of preventing the coronavirus outbreak from reaching the crisis proportions now seen in other states, Gov. Gina Raimondo on Wednesday advised Rhode Islanders not to attend or organize events, indoors or out, with more than 250 people of any age for the next two weeks.
She also urged that no events be held involving “large numbers” of older adults, who are greater risk of contracting coronavirus. Current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “is for organizations that serve high-risk populations to consider canceling events of more than 10 people,” according to the Rhode Island Department of Health.
During her second news conference this week on COVID-19, which the World Health Organization has now declared a pandemic, the governor acknowledged that what she is asking is “radical” — but asserted “the number-one goal right now is containment.”
Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said the events guidance and other measures offer a “unique” opportunity to possibly avoid the grave situations now facing states including Washington, California and New York, where hundreds are sick with the numbers climbing daily.
“That’s why we are being so aggressive in our approach. We only have one chance to contain this,” Alexander-Scott told reporters at the news conference, at the Department of Administration building. The two leaders also addressed the media there on Monday, when Raimondo declared a state of emergency.
The governor said her guidance was just that — guidance, not an order — and she said events differ, with larger crowds that allow for people to keep a distance of six feet or more from others, so-called “social distancing,” perhaps not being problematic. But organizers of all events, she said, should take precautions.
The Health Department offered this instruction: “Promote messages that discourage people who are sick from attending events, regardless of the number of people at the event. Additionally, those messages should urge older adults to not attend events. Provide COVID-19 prevention supplies, including soap in restrooms, hand sanitizer and tissues.”
Also, “develop exible refund policies for participants. Create refund policies that permit participants the flexibility to stay home when they are sick, need to care for sick household members, or are at high risk for complications from COVID-19.”
And, “at any event that older adults will attend, verbally screen people for illness, provide hand sanitizer, ensure that people are washing their hands regularly, and ensure that people are not closely concentrated for sustained periods of time.”
Addressing the issue of children in kindergarten through Grade 12, the governor and Health Department director said they are working with the Rhode Island Department of Education on a continuing basis regarding policy. But as of Wednesday evening, there were no plans to close schools.
That rationale, the leaders said, is based on three primary factors: globally, evidence shows children have the lowest risk of contracting COVID-19; many children receive meals at schools and might go lacking were classes canceled; and if canceled, some children would be left in the care of older adults such as grandparents, who are at higher risk of coronavirus.
The Department of Education is “issuing additional guidance for school leadership” including “recommendations on school assemblies, cleaning schedules, ways to ensure social distancing in schools, and visitation policies,” according to the Health Department.
“This approach, like every other approach, has been based on science,” Alexander-Scott said. And, she said, CDC knowledge and guidance underlie it.
In general, she said, “the key here is the symptom element.” She said anyone with symptoms of coronavirus – fever, cough, shortness of breath – should stay home and call their healthcare provider, not show up unannounced at the office.
A special Department of Health COVID-19 hotline is answered around the clock: 401-222-8022. The department can also be reached by email: RIDOH.COVID19Questions@health.ri.gov
Raimondo repeated that she is not asking business to shut down, but once again urged people who are sick to stay home. She issued other guidance to businesses during the Monday news conference and again during a conference call with business leaders on Tuesday.
“Hundreds” of Rhode Islanders remain in self-quarantine, the governor said. The number of known cases in the state remains at five. They include Marc Thibeault, 48, who remains in the ICU at Miriam Hospital, and a teenager, both of whom were on the same Saint Raphael Academy field trip to Italy in February. Other cases are a woman in her 60s who worked at Smithfield Avenue Nursery School in Pawtucket; a woman in her 50s who traveled recently to Egypt; and a woman in her 30s who is a healthcare worker at an unnamed hospital in the state.
Asked what the state might do were the disease to spread further, Raimondo said: “The answer is we are dealing with this one day at a time.”
In other major developments Wednesday:
— Care New England, Rhode Island’s second-largest healthcare system, established a no-visitor policy at all of its hospitals: Kent, Butler and Women & Infants. Lifespan, the state’s largest system, has a similar policy.
— Organizers of several events, including Brain Week and Rhode Island Kids Count’s annual Factbook breakfast, canceled them.
— The University of Rhode Island canceled in-person classes through at least April 3, and Providence College canceled in-person classes through at least April 13.
— The Rhode Island Convention Center canceled several events, including the Rhode Island Home Show. The Dunkin’ Donuts Center said it would soon have more information about scheduled Providence Bruins games.
Questions and answers about COVID-19, updated daily.
– With reports from Paul Edward Parker and Linda Borg
On Twitter: @gwaynemiller