PBN Summit: R.I.’s real pandemic test still to come

PBN'S HEALTH CARE SUMMIT was held online on Wednesday morning with panelists from the health care and business arenas.
PBN'S HEALTH CARE SUMMIT was held online on Wednesday morning with panelists from the health care and business arenas.

PROVIDENCE – Panelists at PBN’s online Health Care Summit on Wednesday gave Gov. Gina M. Raimondo high marks for her efforts to slow down the spread of COVID-19 in Rhode Island, but they pointed out that the real test will come in about two weeks, when the highly contagious respiratory disease is expected to peak in the state.

View a recording of the summit here.

Dr. Christopher Ottiano, medical director for Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island, called Raimondo’s approach “appropriately aggressive,” particularly given projections for what could happen if the state, and the nation, did nothing.

“Everything will be graded out on how we mitigate this virus. That’s the key word, ‘mitigation,’ ” Ottiano said during a nearly two-hour web event that more than 300 people signed up to attend. “Very early, very consistently the governor and her team put out the message, and continue to put it out, on how our behaviors can flatten that bell curve.”

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Normally, PBN’s summits are held in banquet rooms with panelists sitting next to one another, and the audience gathered around large tables. But times are very different now, and panelists participated by video at separate locations and the audience sitting at their computers.

The panelists were a mixture of medical and business representatives. Besides Ottiano, they were Dr. Terrance Healey, a thoracic radiologist at Rhode Island Medical Imaging; Ed Huttenhower, state director for the Rhode Island Small Business Development Center at URI; Dr. Claire Levesque, chief medical officer for commercial products at Tufts Health Plan; Dr. Edward McGookin, chief medical officer of Coastal Medical; and Alicia Samolis, chair of the labor and employment practice at the Providence law firm Partridge Snow & Hahn.

PBN editor Michael Mello moderated. Panelists were asked where the state stood as the pandemic runs its course, and whether they felt social-distancing guidelines were working.

“I think we’re still on the rising side of the curve,” McGookin said. “The best estimate is that the peak will arrive in about 14 days. But I feel we are flattening the curve. … We will have a surge, but I thnk we will be able to manage the curve.”

He said he’s encouraged by the efforts Rhode Island’s hospitals are taking to prepare, including opening additional spaces and freeing resources by postponing some elective procedures.

“Right now I think we are in a calm before the storm,” he said. “But all the right people are thinking about what will be necessary to do to handle the surge.”

As for business, it’s a time of tremendous uncertainly. Ottiano acknowledged that the same measures necessary to control the virus have a profound impact on many businesses in Rhode Island.

“It’s very hard for employers, because [closure orders] can be so sudden,” added Samolis. “It’s tough because you really don’t know what’s coming.”

Initially, she said, employers have been willing to go along with measures to contain the virus. But if the closures continue for a long time, there is likely to be pushback from both business owners and the public.

The panel was asked when most of the laid-off workers in the state will be able to go back to work.

Huttenhower acknowledged that his crystal ball is cloudy, but said it would probably be at least a couple of months. And even then businesses would reopen in stages, he said.

Samolis painted a grim scenario.

“I don’t want to be negative, but I see a devastating impact on business,” she said. “When people are ready to go back to their jobs, there might not be jobs to go back to.”


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