PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — As the delta variant continues to fuel an increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Rhode Island, Gov. Dan McKee announced Tuesday that all staff at state-licensed health care centers are required to be fully vaccinated by October.
The requirement covers public and private facilities including hospitals, nursing homes and other long-term care settings, McKee said, adding that exceptions will be made for medical reasons.
Until that time, all unvaccinated health care workers must continue to wear masks and get tested twice a week.
“We know that there are some staff members that are unvaccinated and inside of our hospitals and congregate care nursing homes,” McKee said. “We are going to mandate that because we know that is an area that is at a risk and we don’t want to take any risks.”
McKee did not say what the consequences will be for workers who fail to follow the mandate.
“We’ll deal with that if in fact that happens,” he said. “I’m not expecting that’s going to happen. The comments I’m receiving from people are supportive, of that nature.”
McKee and Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, who was on hand for Tuesday’s briefing, stressed the vaccine is the best defense against the coronavirus, especially the more aggressive delta variant. Health officials estimate more than 75% of new cases in the state are delta cases, according to Alexander-Scott.
“The vaccines we have help protect against serious illness from the delta variant. That’s the number-one message you want for your loved ones, for your coworkers, for your friends,” Alexander-Scott said. “If you’re watching this today, if you’re reading about the delta variant in the news and want to know what you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones, the answer is get vaccinated. It’s time now.”
On Tuesday, the Health Department reported 679 new cases since Friday and one additional death. (Data was not released on Monday due to the state holiday.) Health officials also added 35 cases to daily totals prior to Friday.
Rhode Island is still considered to have high transmission of the virus, with a rate of 142 new cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days.
The state is up to 66 COVID-19 hospitalizations, an increase of 26 since Friday, the data shows.
According to McKee, about 195,000 eligible Rhode Islanders ages 12 and older have not yet been vaccinated.
In encouraging more people to get vaccinated, Alexander-Scott said individuals cannot count on natural immunity from previous COVID-19 exposure since they likely don’t have the antibodies for the delta variant.
“There is more and more evidence suggesting that this particular coronavirus — SARS-CoV-2 — does not confer long-term immunity after natural exposure,” she explained. “If you’ve had coronavirus in the past, relying on that alone as the immunity to protect you from the delta variant is insufficient. The vaccine is another critical layer to add to that.”
McKee said there won’t be a vaccine requirement for teachers and child-care workers, noting that about 90% of them are already vaccinated. He did, however, urge parents of kids 12 and older to make an appointment to get them vaccinated to help ensure a safe return to the classroom in the fall.
The governor said the state will work with each district to provide school-based vaccination clinics and testing to make the process as easy as possible for families.
Tom McCarthy, who heads up the state’s COVID-19 response, said to try and reach more unvaccinated individuals, the state will be holding more than 60 pop-up clinics over the next few weeks in places with lower rates like Providence, Pawtucket and Woonsocket.
McCarthy also anticipates the state will open more testing sites to make appointments more easily accessible. Visit covid.ri.gov/testing to make an appointment.
As for masks, McKee reiterated the state is strongly recommending that districts create a policy requiring all students, faculty and staff wear them to start the school year, per the CDC’s most recent guidance.
“Some of our young people do not meet age requirements to get vaccinated and we have to use all tools available to us to keep them safe and to prevent in-classroom learning disruption,” McKee said. “We don’t need to have students be in quarantine because of an infection in the school.”
McKee said he’s asking state workers to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, and a vaccine mandate for state workers is being discussed.
A statewide mask mandate is not on the table right now, according to McKee, but he encouraged Rhode Islanders to make the decision that’s best for them. He said it’s a good idea to have a mask handy since some businesses and services require them and asked that people be courteous of that.
Additionally, McKee provided an update on the RI Gives Vax Challenge, which awards $10,000 grants to nonprofits that aided in the state’s pandemic recovery for every 5,000 vaccine doses administered. He not only announced the recipients of the fourth round of grants, but also said the state surpassed the 25,000 dose milestone (27,000, to be exact) so the next round of recipients will be revealed in the coming days.
The following organizations will be awarded $10,000 grants:
- Operation Stand Down Rhode Island
- Boys and Girls Club of East Providence
- Rhode Island for Community and Justice
- Lucy’s Hearth
- Amenity Aid
- Hope’s Harvest RI
- Capital City Community Center
- Progreso Latino
- Clinica Esperanza
- Foster Forward
- Central Falls Family Self-Sufficiency Foundation
- Clothes to Kids RI
- New Beginnings
- Interfaith Counseling Center
- McAuley Ministries
- We Share Hope
- Johnnycake Center of Peacedale
- Providence Rescue Mission
“I list them with a great deal of respect, and I ask people to be supporting these organizations because they have supported us,” McKee added.