President-elect Joe Biden confirmed on Friday that he would appoint Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo as Commerce Secretary. “She is one of the most effective and forward-thinking housekeepers in the United States of America,” Biden said in a speech revealing the choice.
Raimondo is said to have impressed Biden during the vice-president selection process, and she had previously been tasked with leading the Treasury and Health and Human Services departments.
But the governor of Rhode Island is reportedly moving to Washington at a time when its state faces one of the highest COVID-19 infection and death rates in the country, raising questions about how she could handle the massive and sprawling agency. If confirmed, Raimondo’s responsibilities range from negotiating trade agreements to overseeing the census and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
While some public health officials attribute Rhode Island’s exceptional coronavirus rates to demographic factors, such as population density and poverty, others say the governor has made major missteps, delaying restrictions to prioritize economic activity that has left the state with untraceable and uncontrollable community spread.
“We allowed the disease to explode in November and December,” Dr Michael Fine, former director of the Rhode Island Department of Health and chief health strategist for the city of Central Falls, told The Daily Beast. .
At the start of the crisis, Rhode Island seemed to be avoiding the worst of the pandemic. Raimondo has received positive national attention to get tested quickly and keep infection rates low. She also made headlines for promising to aggressively enforce a quarantine on New Yorkers visiting her state.
Raimondo and his health secretary were holding daily press conferences to announce restrictions and new decrees. In Rhode Island, unlike many states, there is no county or local board of health. Raimondo filled this void.
In an interview with POLITICO magazine last summer, Raimondo said she relies heavily on public-private partnerships, with companies like CVS (headquartered in Rhode Island) to provide testing and Salesforce to conduct effective contact tracing. “I coldly called the CEOs of diagnostic companies. I hired the Chinese consulate. I called every CEO in the medical device world I knew, ”she told the agency.
This kind of coordination with the business community, especially at the state and local levels, would be what Biden – like most presidents – sought in his appointment to Commerce.
But critics in Rhode Island doubt the governor has handled that coordination effectively, especially with regard to the pandemic.
“These partnerships were better than nothing, but we asked for resources in those first few months, and those resources didn’t come,” Fine told The Daily Beast. “So I think a lot of time and attention went into these partnerships, testing and hiring consultants, but I thought the money would have been better spent in our communities, directly with our city governments.
The state spent $ 4.18 million to pay for two consulting firms for services related to the pandemic: Boston Consulting Group and Alvarez & Marsal Public Sector Services, according to the state’s transparency portal. A the Wall Street newspaper a survey of the practice at the national level found that states which retain consulting firms for assistance in the management of COVID-19 “saw only modest benefits, if at all, for the additional cost” .
Josh Block, spokesperson for Raimondo, told the Daily Beast that the governor’s approach has been confirmed.
“As a result of the public-private partnerships initiated by Governor Raimondo, Rhode Island has become one of the early leaders in our response to COVID-19,” he said, adding, “We have established many partnerships with municipalities – and in particular high-density communities – to be able to meet people where they are in our screening and vaccination systems, by setting up drop-in and drive-thru testing sites in local schools and community centers.
“The emphasis on hospital capacity is probably costing lives.“
– Michael fine
Likewise, Andrew Bates, a spokesperson for the Biden Transition, told the Daily Beast: “Governor Raimondo is an innovative and successful leader who inherited the country’s worst unemployment rate and brought her state back through training. successful workforce and small business programs. The first woman to take office, she made Rhode Island the nation’s leader in COVID-19 testing per capita. The president-elect looks forward to working with her to better rebuild our economy after the damage caused by the pandemic.
The toll from the Raimondo pandemic, however, is increasingly difficult.
On December 7, local media reported that data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had Rhode Island leading the country in per capita coronavirus cases. Raimondo has consistently pointed to the state’s high rate of testing and high density, as well as disregard for rules, as explanations for the disturbing numbers.
Experts say this is only part of the story.
“High tests are never a reason to excuse poor performance,” said Lawrence Gostin, professor of law at Georgetown and director of the WHO Collaborating Center on Public Health Law and Human Rights. “The tests should have the opposite effect of helping the state find cases early and then initiate testing and isolation.”
Still, experts acknowledged that Rhode Island had unique vulnerabilities that made the pandemic especially brutal there.
Dr Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and associate professor of emergency medicine at Alpert School of Medicine at Brown University, told The Daily Beast that demographic factors are likely playing a big role.
The high population density “makes the distance more difficult,” Ranney said. And “we have a lot of multigenerational households.” She added that Rhode Island is a state where many people spend their entire lives, and multigenerational family reunions are hard to avoid.
“The governor has strived to strike a balance between the need to take care of our people economically and the need to take care of the health of the people,” said Ranney. “We have a very strong restaurant and tourism economy, and the lack of federal support has made it difficult for them to further lock things down.
But when cases started to spike this fall, critics say, the governor did too little too late, allowing the virus to run out of control. And her own behavior has also made her vulnerable to accusations of coronavirus hypocrisy that rocked Democrats across the country.
In October, Rhode Island began to see a new wave. On October 30, Raimondo limited the household assembly limit to 10 people and said the state would crack down on “unstructured social contexts.” However, she has left – and continues to leave – institutions such as bars and restaurants open for indoor dining, albeit at reduced capacity.
In mid-November, a local news survey found that even though the governor had restricted household assembly limits, “an extract of contact tracing data obtained by Target 12 shows that health officials have in fact limited insight into where virus transmission takes place. History pointed out that Michigan – which was seeing similar surges – had closed bars, restaurants and gyms, while Raimondo ordered those institutions to close earlier in the night.
Days later, IBM, working with Salesforce – which the state had contracted for contact tracing services – provided news outlets with a report showing that about 40% of cases were spreading in households or families. . In other words, the majority of cases still originated outside the home. The state’s health department, for its part, said it was nearly impossible to know where transmission was occurring, echoing the titanic struggle to trace contacts across the country.
On November 19, Raimondo announced that the state would increase restrictions to stop a COVID-19 outbreak, but that it would not start until November 30 – after Thanksgiving. “The break was delayed for two weeks to allow Thanksgiving to take place, and it ended four days before Christmas to allow shopping,” said Fine, the former public health official.
The choices have been made, “most likely at the cost of the spread of the disease,” he added.
Gostin agreed that the delayed “break” may have been a problem.
“It would be a bad decision to announce a foreclosure in the future and wait until after Thanksgiving,” he told The Daily Beast. “First, lockouts must be immediate, not delayed. This will only encourage risky behavior before the lockdown. Second, Thanksgiving is the most dangerous time of the year, which is why risk mitigation measures should be taken before and not after the holidays. “
This could only have been evident in retrospect, argued Maciej Boni, a professor of biology at Penn State and informal adviser to the Rhode Island Department of Health. Boni said Raimondo was “one of the few governors who took this seriously and put together scientific teams who gave them good advice and balanced it with political considerations.”
Still, Fine argued that the hospitalization data Raimondo – like many governors across the country – used as a metric had little to do with controlling the spread of the disease. “The emphasis on hospital capacity has probably cost lives, because counterbalanced by hospital capacity was economy, and keeping bars and restaurants open, whereas in many other places they would have been closed,” he said. he told the Daily Beast.
Critics note that restaurants in the state have been allowed to remain open at reduced capacity, even during the “break.” And Raimondo was criticized for attending a wine and painting event in December – that she insisted she was in compliance with her political restrictions, but produced a photo of herself without a mask.
Nearly 2,000 Rhode Islanders have now died from COVID-19, and nearly 100,000 positive test results have returned to the state of about one million people since March.
Any governor called upon to occupy a national post will have to fight against the rumblings of the State of origin. And a pandemic is not the kind of health crisis that produces many success stories, as Governor Andrew Cuomo has learned the hard way in New York City. But critics of Raimondo are baffled by his elevation even as the state continues to grapple with a particularly fierce epidemic.
As Gostin said, “The state’s consistently high COVID levels show the governor’s performance was not exemplary.”
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