PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Nearly three dozen state representatives wrote to Gov. Dan McKee on Tuesday asking him to scrap an Oct. 1 deadline for Rhode Island health workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or else lose their jobs.
“This is not an anti-vaccination or anti-science statement to the governor,” state Rep. Arthur Corvese, who spearheaded the bipartisan letter, told 12 News. “We’ve made it clear in the body of the statement: we urge all adults to get vaccinated.”
But, he said, “what we don’t want to see is those individuals who’ve been lauded as saviors and heroes for the last year and a half — we don’t want to see them on the unemployment line. … We want our people to be vaccinated, but we also want our people to be employed.”
Corvese, D-North Providence, said the lawmakers want the McKee administration to “come up with appropriate guidelines” so that unvaccinated health workers can remain employed “and still protect the public health.” While the letter offered no specifics, some jurisdictions are allowing unvaccinated individuals to instead submit to regular testing, including the city of Providence.
The letter — which calls the mandate “extreme and unjust” — was signed by 24 Democrats and nine Republicans. The group said if McKee doesn’t change the deadline or ease the rules around mandatory vaccinations, the General Assembly should reconvene to override it. House Speaker Joe Shekarchi himself signaled some unease with the policy last week.
McKee, a Democrat who took office in March, has stood by the new rule despite protests from some medical workers, saying he has consulted with hospital executives and believes it is in the best interest of patient safety. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has imposed a similar mandate for workers at nursing homes and home care providers, with an Oct. 31 deadline in his state.
At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, McKee said he hadn’t read the letter from the lawmakers yet. “Our intention is to keep people employed and get them vaccinated,” he said.
He also said the state would be “making sure that people get vaccinated and those who don’t, we have to kind of work in a way that protects them but at the same time we have to protect the very people we’re trying to keep healthy.”
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Care New England President and CEO Dr. James Fanale said Friday that about 85% of health care workers are currently vaccinated at his hospital group, the second-largest in Rhode Island. He said hospital leaders will continue holding vaccination clinics and workshops ahead of the Oct. 1 deadline.
“While Care New England truly values each member of our staff, and respects the personal choice of individuals to make the best decisions for themselves and their families, it has a responsibility offer its patients peace of mind by providing them access to fully vaccinated health care workers to preserve their overall well-being,” Fanale said in a statement.
“Those who opt not to get vaccinated are choosing not to fulfill a requirement of their position and will no longer be allowed to work,” Fanale added.
But the Rhode Island Partnership for Home Care, which represents various state-licensed providers, projected last week that it staff resignations tied to the vaccine mandate would lead to a shortage of workers equivalent to nearly 5% of the patients and clinics its members serve.
“Home care patients and clients have the right to allow unvaccinated persons to live and visit their homes,” Nicholas Oliver, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.
Corvese insisted that the letter was neither criticism of McKee nor R.I. Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, saying the state’s top health official “has done a more than admirable job in protecting the populous of Rhode Island.”
Rhode Island now boasts one of the country’s highest vaccination rates, Corvese noted, but “you’re never going to bat 1.000.”
In addition to Corvese, the letter’s other Democratic signatories are Reps. Samuel Azzinaro, Nathan Biah, Edward Cardillo Jr., Steven Casey, Julie Casimiro, Gregory Costantino, Robert Craven Sr., Grace Diaz, Deborah Felella, Bernard Hawkins, Ray Hull, Charlene Lima, Steven Lima, James McLaughlin, Mary Duffy Messier, Thomas Noret, William O’Brien, Ramon Perez, Robert Phillips, Patricia Serpa, Carlos Tobon, Camille Vella-Wilkinson and Anastasia Williams.
“We’re going to create an even greater shortage of workers and potentially a public emergency crisis,” said Noret, D-Coventry.
House Minority Leader Blake Filippi and every other member of the House Republican caucus signed the letter with one exception, Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, R-Cranston, who is a licensed hospital worker.
“As someone subject to this mandate, I know that the vaccine is the best tool we have to put this nightmare behind us,” Fenton-Fung said in a statement, noting that both hospital management and the nurses union support it.
“That being said, I support a compassionate exemption for those healthcare workers who are currently pregnant, many of whom are very hesitant to expose their growing child to this new vaccine,” she said. “We must also honor that each worker’s doctor knows them best, and respect the medical and religious exemptions requested by the experts.”
Two state senators — Dawn Euer, D-Newport, and Alana DiMario, D-Narragansett — quickly pushed back at the letter.
“Vaccine mandates are not new or unique,” Euer wrote on Twitter, saying the representatives’ argument “misses the point of vulnerable patients who need medical care and to be treated safely.”
DiMario said health workers are required to get vaccinated against a number of other illnesses as a condition of employment, from flu to rubella. “This is not a political decision, it’s a public health decision,” she wrote on Twitter.
Update: Rep. Ray Hull announced on Sept. 8 he would remove his name from the letter. Rep. Carlos Tobon announced on Sept. 9 he would remove his name, as well.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram