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Rhode Island warns of Covid-19 'car pool clusters' as more commuters head back to the office

In other coronavirus news: President Trump has lined up a series of rallies in swing states, New Jersey's Monmouth University switches to online learning after superspreader event, study says U.S. Covid deaths are undercounted.
A member of the Rhode Island National Guard Military Police directs a motorist with New York license plates at a checkpoint on I-95 over the border with Connecticut in Hope Valley, R.I. on March 28, 2020. Fearing an explosion of new cases, Gov. Gina Raimondo in March dispatched the state police and the National Guard to stop motorists with New York plates at the border to enforce a 14-day quarantine.David Goldman / AP file

Car pools are good for the environment and help ease congestion, but they can be risky in the midst of a pandemic.

That’s the warning the Rhode Island Department of Health is sounding after tracing a spate of new infections to car pool clusters.

So far, the number of infections is tiny.

“Of all the people who have tested positive, roughly 15 have reported carpooling in the 14 days before symptom onset,” Rhode Island Health Department spokesman Joseph Wendelken said Tuesday in an email to NBC News. “They work for eight different organizations.”

But Rhode Island is a tiny and very congested state. The average commute for state residents traveling by car, public transportation and other means is about 24.8 minutes, according to U.S. Census and other data compiled by the IndexMundi website.

And many Rhode Islanders commute to work in Boston, which has some of the worst traffic in the nation.

It wasn’t immediately clear how many Rhode Islanders rely on car pools. But a Brookings Institution analysis of 2016 census data found that 76 percent of Americans drive alone to work and just nine percent use car pools.

Still, far more people carpool in the United States than use public transportation, according to an analysis of more recent census data by the venerable Eno Center for Transportation.

In other coronavirus news:

  • President Donald Trump, who claims to be completely recovered from his bout with Covid-19, has lined up a series of rallies in swing states where his support has been eroded by his administration's mishandling of the coronavirus crisis. But local officials fear those rallies could turn into "superspreader" events because the Trump campaign has not been enforcing mask-wearing or social distancing.
  • The more than 200,000 Covid-19 deaths in the United States are likely an undercount, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. "For every two Americans that we know of who are dying of Covid-19, another American is dying," said Dr. Steven Woolf, author of the new research and director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University.
  • Just weeks after Johnson & Johnson announced it was in the final stages of testing a Covid-19 vaccine, the company hit the pause button after one of the participants became ill. Trump has repeatedly vowed to deliver a vaccine by Election Day, a promise experts have dismissed as extremely unlikely, if not impossible.
  • Monmouth University in New Jersey is the latest U.S. institution of higher learning forced to deal with a big coronavirus outbreak. In this case, the school was forced to switch to online classes after more than 100 students tested positive after attending a "superspreader" event off campus two weeks earlier.
  • Covid-19 has cut a deadly swath through Texas' Rio Grande Valley and churned up anger at Trump for downplaying the danger of the coronavirus. "It's a little disappointing when I hear him say: 'Don't be afraid of Covid. Nothing has happened," said Covid-19 survivor Irene Morales, 75, who has buried her brother, sister, father and aunt.
  • Wisconsin reported a record 3,279 new coronavirus infections and 34 more deaths Tuesday as Vice President Mike Pence was campaigning in the state. The Wisconsin governor's attempts to control the spread have been stymied repeatedly by the GOP-controlled legislature.
  • Soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo has tested positive for the coronavirus and will miss an upcoming match against Sweden, the Portuguese Football Federation announced.
  • Anti-Covid lockdown activist Sean Feucht is under investigation for holding a Christian "worship protest" outside a Nashville courthouse Sunday that drew over a thousand people, most of whom did not wear masks or social distance. Feucht did not have a permit and local health officials are bracing for more infections as a result of the gathering.

So commuters crammed into an enclosed space are a potential Covid-19 hot spot on four wheels and extra precautions have to be taken before you get into the vehicle.

“You need to wear a mask the whole time,” Wendelken told the NBC News affiliate in Providence. “That means making sure you have your mask on before you get into the car.”

Also, Wendelken added, “you want to make sure you’re doing a symptom check before you get in the car.”

“Really, everyone should be doing this if they’re heading into a workplace, to make sure that you’re not experiencing any of these symptoms,” he said.

It also means riding to work with the “same people” every day.

“If people are going to be carpooling, it’s really important that there’s some consistency there,” Wendelken said.

Keep the windows cracked for air flow and err on the side of caution, he added.

“We really want people to be conservative, to play it safe, and if they’re having symptoms, stay home,” Wendelken said.

Rhode Island was one of the Northeastern states that was hit hard in the early days of the pandemic.

New York, however, was the epicenter of the pandemic in March and alarm bells went off in Providence after lawmakers began hearing reports of Empire State residents decamping for their second homes in tony Rhode Island towns like Newport.

Fearing an explosion of new cases, Rhode Island’s Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo in March dispatched the state police and the National Guard to stop motorists with New York plates at the border to enforce a 14-day quarantine.

“I know this is unusual. I know this is extreme. And I know some people don’t agree with it,” Raimondo said. “It’s absolutely not a decision I make lightly.”

Rhode Island, as of Tuesday, had recorded 26,960 confirmed coronavirus cases and 1,139 Covid-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic, according to the latest NBC News figures.

That is just a fraction of the 216,430 deaths and 7.8 million Covid-19 cases reported nationwide and Rhode Island’s 1.97 percent positivity rate is the eighth lowest in the country, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Research Center.