Rhode Island public health officials are continuing the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic as a new threat of monkeypox emerges. Officials who spoke with The Herald expressed optimism about Rhode Island’s COVID-19 infection rates and shared preventative tips for monkeypox.
The number of daily cases in Rhode Island peaked in January this year, when the daily average number of cases in the state reached over 5,000, according to the New York Times. After a brief surge in May, the number of reported cases has been on a steady decline. An average of 220 cases per day were recorded in Rhode Island last week — a 10% drop relative to infection rates two weeks ago.
“I am cautiously optimistic about the direction we are going in with COVID,” said Phillip Chan, Rhode Island Department of Health consultant medical director and associate professor of medicine at the University. “We are relatively back to normal. At this stage in the game, it’s about being vigilant and observant.”
“Infections are at a low level, which is a great thing,” he added. “We are in a good place with Omicron and COVID in general, but some of the variants are still in circulation.”
Since the start of the pandemic, over 420,000 people in Rhode Island have been infected with COVID, and there have been nearly 3,700 deaths.
Despite the recent improvement in the state, the virus is killing thousands of people at the national level. “If you look at the country-level trends, there are about 80,000 new cases and another 500 people dying every single day,” said Amy Nunn, professor of behavioral and social sciences in the School of Public Health and professor of medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School. “The mortality rate has gone down, but it is not insignificant.”
“I think this is something that we’re going to have to grapple with on a regular basis,” she added. “The population has COVID fatigue. No one really wants to talk about it anymore, and this is making things difficult.”
The CDC recommends that people ages 12 and up get a COVID booster shot at least two months after receiving their last vaccine. 48% of Rhode Islanders have been boosted as of Aug. 31.
The University required that all students and staff receive an approved COVID-19 vaccine and booster, and for students to test 24-36 hours before coming back for the fall semester, according to an email from Vice President for Campus Life Eric Estes and Associate Vice President for Health and Wellness Vanessa Britto MSc’96.
The University has also made free KN95 masks and test kits available to students, according to the email.
“Brown has had enough resources to develop its own surveillance and testing facilities, which have been great,” Nunn said. “I really admire the way the University has handled things. You have to be humble about it because things can change in the blink of an eye.”
“I was proud to see the state come together during COVID, and to see the universities come together as well,” Chan said. “I think we’re very lucky to be in the state of Rhode Island.”
Monkeypox has spread internationally in recent months. The first case of monkeypox outside West and Central Africa, where it is endemic, was recorded in the United Kingdom in May, but there have now been over 23,000 reported cases in the U.S.
Monkeypox spreads through close, skin-to-skin contact or contact with respiratory secretions or contaminated surfaces. The disease has disproportionately affected members of the LGBTQ+ community, said Chan and Nunn, although people of all demographics who have been in close contact with someone with monkeypox can contract the virus. In August, Governor Dan McKee announced that RIDOH would expand its efforts to vaccinate Rhode Islanders, opening vaccine eligibility from just those who have been exposed to also include Rhode Island men who identify as gay, bisexual, queer or who have sex with men or transgender indivudals and who have had multiple or anonymous sex partners in the last 30 days.
The University announced that it would “report monkeypox cases only when there is a public health rationale for doing so,” according to Estes’ and Britto’s email. Contact tracing will be done anonymously.
People exposed to monkeypox should contact a medical provider right away, as getting a vaccine within four days of exposure significantly cuts the chances of someone developing the disease, Chan and Nunn said. The University recommends that eligible individuals take the preventive vaccine, and that people who have been exposed to the virus contact Health Services to schedule an appointment.
“For the general public, the risk is low,” Chan said. “The one group that we’ve seen disproportionately impacted are gay and bisexual men. Members of the LGBTQ+ community should think about getting vaccinated.”
“That’s what I have encouraged my patients to do,” he said.