Governor points to local clinics such as N.S./Woonsocket in response to COVID surge

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WOONSOCKET – In a press conference aimed at thanking and acknowledging the role localized clinics have played in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Dan McKee announced that the facilities will play a major part in combating the latest surge of the virus.

And while most local and state leaders struck a positive tone regarding Rhode Island’s ability to overcome issues including hospital staff shortages and long waits for testing, Rhode Island Department of Health Director Nicole Alexander-Scott said the state’s rate of cases is expected, “well exceed,” numbers seen during the virus’s peak last December.

The conference was held at the former Monsignor Gadoury School, where vaccines have now been administered for a year with the help of local volunteers. The facility will be open every Wednesday in January from 3 to 6 p.m. for those in need of Pfizer or Moderna booster shots. Appointments can be made at vaccinateRI.org.

“We’re here today to recognize municipal leaders who are stepping up,” said McKee.

The briefing comes following a week in which the state saw three days with more than 3,000 new positive cases, leaving many parents wondering if students will be allowed to return from winter breaks.

“We have come up with a way to safely bring our students back for in-person learning,” McKee said, noting that final decisions will ultimately come down to each district. “COVID has presented us with a wide range of challenges and we have had to adapt with a priority of keeping kids in school.”

The governor said more guidance regarding plans for in-person learning will be released in the coming days.

Rhode Islanders will also follow the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control regarding quarantine, with those who are asymptomatic now advised to isolate for five days, rather than ten. Those who are fully vaccinated, up to date on booster shots, and not showing symptoms no longer need to quarantine following a close contact.

Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt thanked McKee for his visit to the location, where this time last year, locals were franticly to working to get the first round of shots to the oldest residents in the two neighboring communities.

“As everyone knows, Woonsocket has been a bit challenged in getting our percentage rate to a number we are comfortable with,” said Baldelli-Hunt in reference to the city’s ongoing position as the third least vaccinated community in the state. Still, she noted, “This particular location has been running like a well-oiled machine.”

North Smithfield Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski also thanked the governor for his leadership.

“There was a time when the state was floundering and then the governor came on board,” Zwolenski said, adding of the current surge, “It’s going to be challenging, but I think in a few weeks or so we can get it under control.”

McKee noted of such clinics, “We were actually ramping down this effort prior to Thanksgiving, and now we’re ramping back up.”

But as the governor spoke, sounds of protestors yelling and honking horns in objection to mask and vaccine mandates echoed through the room. And reporters grilled the governor regarding the long wait for both tests and results, and the staffing crisis at Rhode Island hospitals.

“Our municipal leaders need to be part of the process to help with capacity issues,” McKee said regarding testing. “Our goal is to get back to a 24-hour turnaround time.”

The governor pointed to new labs, testing sites and clinics now set to launch. To address hospital concerns, McKee noted that he recently granted the facilities new liability protection, and granted temporary reciprocity for healthcare workers with medical licenses in neighboring states.

“This is a national issue and anyone who thinks there’s an easy answer is not paying attention,” McKee said.

In terms of staying safe, Alexander-Scott repeated the mantra heard so often over the past year: wear a mask and get vaccinated – or boostered. The vaccines, she noted, have proven, “very good,” at preventing serious illness and hospitalization.

“They are excellent at keeping you out of the hospital and keeping you alive,” said Alexander-Scott.

The health director noted that data nationally is showing as initially hoped: that while the newest Omicron variant of COVID-19 is more contagious, it is also less deadly. But with so many cases coming at a time of short staffing, she said, it will still take a major effort to keep Rhode Island’s hospitals from getting overrun.

“Data consistently shows that people who are boostered, or who have recently completed the primary series, are the best protected,” said Alexander-Scott.

For those in need of a COVID test, she said that the fastest way to schedule an appointment is still at portal.ri.gov.

“We know the next several weeks re going to be difficult,” Alexander-Scott added, “but we’ve been here before.”

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