It was around 11 p.m. on a Friday night, sometime in the early, nonstop weeks of the worsening global coronavirus pandemic, when Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo realized she needed help. Every infected person in her state was spreading the virus, on average, to four other people—a worrying rate of transmission, particularly in one of the nation’s most densely populated states.
Rhode Island’s 100 or so contact tracers were working furiously to manually trace the contacts of COVID-19 patients, but they couldn’t keep up with the fast-spreading coronavirus. “We would test people, write down all their information, put it in a garbage bag, tie up the garbage bag, bring it to the department of health and manually go through everything,” said Raimondo speaking at a Fortune Most Powerful Women event on Thursday afternoon. “I learned very quickly that speed matters,” she added, noting that she was probably not the only governor dealing with such low-tech tools at that point.
At that late hour, thinking of the need to quickly track down the contacts of every Rhode Islander who tested positive for the novel coronavirus and get them into quarantine, she called some people she knew at Salesforce, the San Francisco–based software company. Could its technology help?
The tech firm’s software is now used by Rhode Island’s state labs, allowing the human contact tracers to move more quickly and accurately, in just one of a number of public-private partnerships that has bolstered Raimondo’s multipronged effort to keep COVID-19 in check in her state. (She also cited a highly impactful partnership with CVS, the state’s homegrown drugstore chain turned health care juggernaut, which opened the first of its high-volume, rapid drive-thru testing facilities in Rhode Island.)
Under Raimondo’s leadership, the state does appear to have turned the tide against COVID-19: The virus’s reproduction rate is down from four in those early days to less than one, and Rhode Island now leads the nation in testing, with 17% of the state’s residents having been screened for COVID-19, compared to 7% nationally, according to the governor.
Raimondo had prioritized testing in the state’s pandemic response from the outset after studying the success of Singapore and South Korea and sees it as key to her strategy to reopen—and keep open—the state’s economy.
“My nightmare is having to close this economy again. I never again want to shut down our economy. It’s way too devastating,” she said. “Testing will allow us to pinpoint the problems and then pinpoint our lockdown to a school, to a company, to a community.”
The state is using a three-part testing strategy that Raimondo calls SOS—symptomatics (testing all symptomatic cases in two days or less), outbreaks (responding within four hours and screening everyone at the site), and surveillance (proactively testing communities).
Raimondo said she has made testing available in every community, concentrating particularly on making sites easily accessible and nonthreatening—walk-up clinics in school parking lots, for example—to the state’s most vulnerable populations. After seeing mass protests in Rhode Island over the police killing of George Floyd—the governor and her family participated in them as well—Raimondo encouraged all protesters to get tested for COVID-19 and made the service free to them.
The governor is also betting this testing infrastructure will allow for the physical reopening of schools in the fall. On Wednesday, she announced Rhode Island children would be back in classrooms come Aug. 31. “It was a big deal to put that flag in the sand,” said Raimondo. “Kids deserve it. Kids need it. Frankly, the economy needs it.” (She simultaneously announced that Rhode Island schoolchildren will never again have a “snow day”—instead, they will have distance learning days.)
She added the state will plan for all scenarios but said she made the decision to reopen schools in order to start the detailed planning process required to do so.
As decisive as her leadership has been, Raimondo, who is in her sixth year as the state’s executive, acknowledged managing the crises of the past few months—a global pandemic, mass unemployment, and civil unrest—hasn’t been easy. “I’m very comfortable making decisions, and making tough decisions, but this has been like nothing else,” she said. “There are no good options. Option A is bad. Option B is really bad, and Option C is pretty bad. Necessarily, you have a lot of critics.”
Raimondo has tried to compensate for that challenge through a combination of empathy and overcommunication. “Not a single human being in this state hasn’t had a lot of really bad days,” she said. “You have to really internalize that.”
She holds regular press conferences and beyond the advice of experts has sought feedback from various professional and community groups to grasp the issues they’re facing. “I have found myself in a position of holding people’s hands and walking them through this process,” she said. “Overcommunicating and two-way dialogue is incredibly helpful even when you don’t have the answer.”
As her state’s economy continues to reopen and families look to a return to school this fall, Raimondo said she is focused on not going back to “normal,” but something better than that. She and her team are looking closely at the disparities in opportunity—in health care, education, housing, and other areas—this crisis has laid bare. “We want to build a better, smarter, stronger, fairer Rhode Island,” she said.
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