McKee noncommittal to updated mask guidance amid rise in new cases


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put out new guidelines on mask-wearing Tuesday as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus fuels a rise in cases nationwide.

The CDC is now recommending that everyone — regardless of vaccination status — resume wearing masks indoors in places with substantial or high transmission rates. The agency’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said the changes stemmed from researchers learning more about the delta variant and its effects, namely that some fully vaccinated people who contract it are becoming symptomatic and can spread it to others.

The latest data from the Rhode Island Department of Health shows the state had a rate of 61 new cases per 100,000 persons over the past seven days, putting it squarely in the CDC’s “substantial transmission” category.

Just prior to the CDC’s announcement, but not before their intentions became known, Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee would not commit to adopting the CDC’s guidance, despite traditionally doing so. McKee said he’s waiting until he’s reviewed the changes with the Health Department to make that call, which will likely be on Wednesday, according to the governor’s office.

During his weekly media briefing with Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, McKee seemed a bit hesitant to have people start wearing masks again since the state has one of the higher vaccination rates in the country.

As of Tuesday, more than 67% of the state’s population was at least partially vaccinated, while more than 61% is now fully vaccinated.

“The data that I’m seeing is telling us that we are in good shape,” McKee said. “So I would hope that the CDC would take into consideration states that actually followed the guidance that was given out of the White House and out of the CDC, and recognizes states that have really done a great job that we don’t pull a fire alarm when there is in fact no fire and right now.”

“From all of the data I’ve seen, we do not have a fire in the state right now,” he added.

While Rhode Island isn’t seeing a flood of new cases like some states, there has been a steady increase in the rate of new cases over the past few weeks.

The rate of 61 new cases per 100,000 persons over a seven-day period is more than six times the rate recorded on July 1.

The Health Department reported 94 new cases on Tuesday and a daily positivity rate of 2.1%, with 4,437 tests administered the previous day.

That marks the fourth straight day the positivity rate was above 2%. Before this week, the last time the daily rate was above 2% was May 9, according to the data.

The state has gone a week without reporting a COVID-19-related death, and even though there hasn’t been a significant increase in hospitalizations, the weekly rate of new admissions increased from 17 last week to 22 this week.

On Monday, McKee said he plans to follow the CDC’s guidance when it comes to masks being worn in schools, but he didn’t indicate his stance in light of the changes announced Tuesday.

The governor said the state will give strong recommendations based on the CDC’s guidance, but not mandate that districts require students and teachers to wear masks in the fall.

“We’ll be coming out with a plan to really make sure that every high school student and middle school student has the opportunity to get vaccinated,” McKee added.

Additionally, with New York City and California ordering government workers to get vaccinated or face weekly testing, McKee said he will not be taking that route.

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