PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Dan McKee says “everything is on the table” when it comes to addressing the recent surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, but he’s not yet ready to reinstate the indoor mask mandate in Rhode Island.
During a briefing Thursday afternoon, McKee continued to urge Rhode Islanders to take steps to protect themselves and those around them as everyone spends more time indoors and gathers for the holidays. This includes staying home and getting tested when sick, getting vaccinated and getting a booster dose when eligible.
“The boosters and the vaccinations are what put us in a spot today where we have a significantly less infection rate that we did last year at this time, as well as significantly less death rate,” McKee said.
At the start of the week, the 7-day average of new COVID-19 infections in Rhode Island was 887 per day. That’s an increase of more than 630 over the past month, however, it’s significantly fewer than the average of 1,321 we had on Dec. 6, 2020, before the vaccine was widely available.
More than 75% of the state’s population is now fully vaccinated, according to the latest data from the R.I. Department of Health. While breakthrough cases are possible among those who are vaccinated, health officials say the data shows people who are not vaccinated are five times more likely to contract COVID-19.
Earlier on Thursday, the FDA approved booster doses for 16- and 17-year-olds who are at least six months past their final shot.
Boosters are most strongly recommended for members of high-risk populations, like people 65 and older and those who are immunocompromised, but the eligibility was expanded since the winter months put more people at risk of transmission.
The Health Department on Thursday reported two additional COVID-19-related deaths and 1,109 new positive cases, which pushed the cumulative total past 200,000 cases since the start of the pandemic.
Hospitalizations declined slightly to 222, but the number of patients on ventilators increased to 23, while 35 remained in the intensive care unit.
McKee said they’re keeping a close eye on hospital capacity as facilities statewide bear the brunt of the increased case load. Staff shortages are a big reason hospitals are being pushed to their limit, he said, with local facilities being short “several thousand workers” compared to two years ago.
The state is exploring options to build the staffing capacity at hospitals, according to the governor, which includes reaching out to FEMA for support and seeing if there’s a role for the R.I. National Guard.
Lifespan, Rhode Island’s largest hospital group, and other health care leaders came out Thursday in support of a statewide mask mandate, saying it would help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
McKee said that while he’s “open to it,” he’s not ready to put the requirement back in place.
“We are relying on the state of Rhode Island with the vaccination rate to personally make the right decisions for them in terms of safety and we are encouraging them to do that,” he added.
Watch: Q&A portion of briefing (story continues below)
McKee also responded to complaints about delays in test results, saying that “turnaround times must get back to where they used to be.” With demand for testing on the rise, he said the Health Department is looking into recruiting private labs for help.
One of the reasons behind the delays, according to McKee, is that some schools and nursing homes have needed outbreak testing, which takes priority over standard testing.
On Thursday, Burrillville High School and Sarah Dyer Barnes Elementary School in Johnston both shifted to distance learning for the remainder of the week due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
Burrillville Superintendent Michael Sollitto told 12 News the high school has a “high number of COVID-positive cases and a high level of student and staff absences due to quarantine protocols.”
Julie-anne Zarrella, assistant superintendent of Johnston schools, said about 35% of the enrollment at Barnes is currently impacted, having either tested positive or been identified as a close contact.