PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Multiple Rhode Island health care leaders said Thursday they support reinstating an indoor mask mandate statewide as the number of hospitalized coronavirus patients rises to levels not seen since last winter.
There were 226 COVID-19 patients in Rhode Island hospitals as of Monday, the most since Feb. 12, according to R.I. Department of Health data. The department said 42 COVID-19 patients were newly admitted to the hospitals on Monday, the highest one-day total since Feb. 3.
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Gov. Dan McKee has been trying to avoid reimposing a mask mandate, fearful of the effect on the economy and public morale. But in a video message posted to social media on Wednesday, McKee said “all options remain on the table in terms of mitigation strategies, including reinstating an indoor mask mandate.” In the meantime, he urged Rhode Islanders to get vaccine booster shots.
McKee lifted the original mask mandate in May for fully vaccinated Rhode Islanders, but imposed one for K-12 schools in August. At a news conference Thursday afternoon, McKee said he was “not ready” to put a mask mandate in place but is in discussions about it.
Hospital leaders have warned the new coronavirus surge is posing additional burdens on their facilities due to continuing staff shortages and employee burnout after nearly two years fighting the pandemic.
Lifespan spokesperson Jane Bruno said Thursday, “Lifespan fully supports a mandatory indoor mask mandate to stem the spread of COVID-19.” She said some of the organization’s doctors would provide a briefing on the situation later Thursday. Lifespan operates Rhode Island Hospital as well as The Miriam, Newport and Bradley.
The state’s second-largest hospital group, Care New England, was less explicit but noted it has an indoor mask mandate in its own buildings. CNE operates Women & Infants, Kent and Butler.
“As health care workers, with population and individual health at the forefront of everything we do, we believe that all reasonable measures that can be taken to mitigate infection rates should be taken,” said Care New England spokesperson Jess McCarthy.
“If one considers what we are requiring in our own buildings, all of our staff are required to be vaccinated and masked at all times (both regardless of level of patient contact and masked unless in a room completely alone with the door closed),” she said. “We require strict adherence to both our vaccination and indoor masking requirements as we understand the evidence that supports these measures.”
Michael Souza, CEO of Landmark Medical Center in Woonsocket, said: “Due to the increase in COVID cases as well as the staffing shortages in health care, Landmark supports the reinstatement of the indoor mask mandate.”
Teresa Paiva Weed, president of the Hospital Association of Rhode Island, said in an email: “HARI encourages everyone to get vaccinated and wear masks. HARI would support an indoor mask mandate as an important mitigation policy to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.”
Steve DeToy, director of government and public affairs at the Rhode Island Medical Society, said the physicians association is “not just calling” for an indoor mask mandate.
“We’re going to raise the roof,” he said, describing mandatory masking as “the only way we’re going to avoid overwhelming the hospital systems again” as COVID and flu cases rise simultaneously.
DeToy said mask usage among Rhode Islanders has dropped from roughly two-thirds to less than 30%. “If you look at the numbers, and you listen to the experts, the reason that our transmission stays so high while our vax rate is No. 2 in the country is because we’ve let our masks down,” DeToy said.
He added, “We know masks work, and for some reason we’re leaving that hand tied behind our back.”
About 72% of Rhode Island’s 1.1 million residents are fully vaccinated, state data shows. In addition, the Health Department said about 214,000 booster or other extra doses have been administered.
Others have strongly opposed reimposing a mask mandate, including a number of Republican state lawmakers. On Thursday, state Rep. Brian Newberry pointed to a photo of multiple top General Assembly Democrats gathered without masks this week for a charity event at Bally’s Twin River.
“I for one am glad to see my Democratic colleagues setting an example of a return to normalcy and refuting the idea masks serve any purpose. Good for them!” Newberry tweeted. “Let’s hope @GovDanMcKee takes note and doesn’t cave to fringe positions pushed for political reasons.”
House Minority Leader Blake Filippi added: “I will mask, or not mask, purely in my own discretion and judgment. No executive order by @GovDanMcKee or regulation by @RIHEALTH will change that.”
Scientific studies have found face masks reduce transmission of COVID-19, but experts have emphasized that higher-quality masks such as N95s and KN95s are significantly more effective than cloth coverings.
In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker has halted elective surgeries at hospitals that are running short of beds in order to deal with the new COVID spike.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) 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