Nesi’s Notes: Dec. 11

Ted Nesi
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Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column for WPRI.com — as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com and follow me on Twitter and on Facebook.

1. Looking back, this year’s July 4 was a milestone in more ways than one. Not only was it the most normal holiday Rhode Islanders have enjoyed since the start of the pandemic — it was also the all-time low for COVID-19 cases in the state, with just five new cases identified that day. But the Delta variant was already beginning to circulate, and by later in the summer cases were on the rise once more. Now Rhode Island is reporting numbers the state had hoped to never see again, with case counts topping 1,000 some days and patient hospitalizations topping 200. That has left Governor McKee caught between his desire to avoid going backwards on COVID restrictions and the calls of many medical leaders to reimpose an indoor mask mandate. “Right now we’re not ready to do that,” McKee told reporters Thursday. “We’re certainly relying on the people of the state of Rhode Island … to personally make the right decisions for them in terms of their safety.” (On Friday evening, the governor’s office said McKee “will be announcing actions” to address the COVID situation “early next week,” but offered no details.) The politics: McKee primary challengers Seth Magaziner, Nellie Gorbea and Helena Foulkes all spoke out in favor of a mask mandate this week, while GOP lawmakers condemned the idea. The bigger question, hanging over not only the mask decision but pandemic policy more generally, is how the winter will go for the hospital system. Hospitalizations are still running at less than half their level of a year ago, but there is also a major staffing shortage, meaning capacity isn’t what it was a year ago, either. And the relaxation of mitigation measures that were in place last winter means other illnesses like flu and RSV are circulating more. Health Department data shows 96% of Rhode Island’s 215 staffed ICU beds were occupied Friday.

2. Just how serious are the challenges facing Rhode Island’s hospitals these days? “We have not only a [COVID] surge, but we have a severe shortage of critical-care nursing, and nursing in general,” Dr. Mitchell Levy, Lifespan’s director of critical care, said on this week’s Newsmakers. He described a “dire” lack of staff, “one of the most severe in the country,” with the number of critical-care nurses down 31%. “That means we’re running with about two-thirds of our usual critical-care nursing staff,” he said. Levy’s colleague Dr. Stephen Traub, a Lifespan emergency physician, took pains to praise the hard work of the remaining staff amid widespread burnout, but didn’t sugarcoat the situation. “It’s leading us to close beds — that exacerbates an already difficult crisis, particularly as we look into a COVID surge,” he said. “Right now at Rhode Island Hospital our volumes are actually less than we would generally see at this time of year, but because of the nursing shortages, we’re just having a really difficult time seeing everybody as quickly as we would like.” (The governor says he’s exploring whether he can bring in FEMA or National Guard personnel to help staff the hospitals.) Looking ahead, Traub said he’s “pretty concerned” about December’s combination of cold weather, holiday gatherings, and limited mitigation. He urged vaccinations, masking and social distancing. “Will things progress and get worse? Yes, I think that they will,” he said. “But I think a lot of how bad that is is under our control.”

3. As Dan McKee continues to weigh whether an indoor mask mandate is warranted, it’s worth looking at how some of his fellow Democratic governors are coming down on the issue. In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul made a major announcement Friday, issuing what the New York Post summed up as a “statewide mask-or-vax mandate” for all indoor spaces. “We’re entering a time of uncertainty and we could either plateau here or our cases could get out of control,” Hochul warned. But out in Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis argued the time for mask mandates has passed. “The emergency is over,” Polis told Colorado Public Radio. “You know, public health [officials] don’t get to tell people what to wear; that’s just not their job. … If you haven’t been vaccinated, that’s your choice. I respect that. But it’s your fault when you’re in the hospital with COVID.” (And speaking of Democratic governors — McKee was supposed to be with them in New Orleans this weekend for the annual Democratic Governors Association meeting, but in the end he opted to remain in Rhode Island rather than head out of town.)

4. State leaders frequently tout Rhode Island’s high vaccination rate, with about 73% of the state’s 1.1 million residents having gotten their first and second (if necessary) doses. Yet those numbers may give a somewhat misleading picture of the population’s current level of protection against COVID, with studies showing waning immunity among those who got their shots many months ago in the initial vaccination drive. Some experts are now suggesting the definition of “fully vaccinated” should transition to only include those who have also gotten a booster dose, particularly as the Delta variant keeps circulating and the Omicron variant looms. Health Department data indicates the state has a long way to go to achieve the same level of coverage under that definition: about 214,000 extra doses have been given so far — mostly booster shots, but also additional doses of other sizes that were specifically given to the immunocompromised. That suggests only about 20% of Rhode Island’s population has the extra protection provided by an additional shot.

5. There was a tense and unexpected moment partway through Governor McKee’s news conference on Thursday, when the Q&A session was interrupted by a woman making emotional comments about domestic violence. McKee handled the volatile situation with sensitivity, asking his security detail to step aside and then letting the individual speak for a few moments before the news conference resumed. So who was she? Tim White reached out to the woman to hear her story later that day.

6. Governor McKee, House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio trooped before the microphones on Monday morning to announce a $180 million spending deal they say will address a variety of immediate crises as the pandemic continues. The heart of the agreement is McKee’s plan to spend $113 million of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars in three areas: $45 million on business and tourism; $38.5 million on services for children; and $29.5 million on housing and broadband. The deal adds an additional $6 million from ARPA funds for child care, bringing total ARPA spending to $119 million. The House and Senate Finance Committees will vote on the ARPA plan “later next week,” per their spokespersons. (Something to watch: what handcuffs will lawmakers put on the executive branch in the final bill compared with the administration’s original draft?) At the same time, the ruling triumvirate also announced two other financial commitments that McKee can execute on his own authority without legislative approval. The first is to use $57.4 million in enhanced federal Medicaid matching money to support direct care workers at home- and community-based service providers. The second is to use $3.64 million in remaining cash from the CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Fund — that big pot of $1.25 billion which was mostly spent in 2020 by Governor Raimondo — to put toward the Early Intervention program. Meanwhile, state Sen. Cynthia Mendes received national media attention for her protest sleeping outside the State House to draw attention to homelessness. Asked what else Mendes wants to see enacted, spokesperson A.J. Braverman said one example would be allocating $14.7 million to expand the hotel voucher program and add 1,200 beds for homeless individuals through March.

7. One long-anticipated deal that the three leaders didn’t announce this week: an agreement on legalizing recreational marijuana in Rhode Island. “We’re still not there,” Speaker Shekarchi said Thursday during an interview on 12 News at 4. “I am happy to report that we’ve worked down to almost one issue that’s left, but it’s not there yet. I have another meeting next week — I hope to wrap it up. I expect you’ll see that in the first quarter of 2022.” The main dispute continues to be over whether the marijuana market is regulated by an independent cannabis commission or the state Department of Business Regulation. “The marijuana bill in general is a very complicated piece of legislation,” Shekarchi said, adding, “I’ve always said, I don’t necessarily want to be the first — I want to be the best.”

8. Meanwhile, the expansion of Rhode Island’s medical marijuana industry continues to be bumpy. Steph Machado this week reported another delay in the lottery for the sixth and final new dispensary license.

9. As debate continues over redistricting the General Assembly’s 113 seats, the secretary of state’s office has rolled out a new interactive tool that lets you compare the current and proposed district boundary lines. You can give it a test run here. Over at the Projo, Kathy Gregg has reaction to the draft maps here.

10. Speaker Shekarchi wasn’t the only Rhode Island politico who raised campaign cash in Washington this week — Providence mayoral candidate Brett Smiley was also in D.C. for two events. On Sunday, he held a midday event at the restaurant Centrolina, with a host committee that included former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, Democratic Party poobah Don Sweitzer, former Gina Raimondo chief of staff Steve Neuman, and pollster Matt McDermott (a Rhody native). The night before that Smiley attended the LGBTQ Victory Fund’s big 30th anniversary gala. Smiley is currently the financial leader in the mayor’s race, sitting on $427,105; he faces Gonzalo Cuervo, Nirva LaFortune, and Mike Solomon. Cuervo has his own big event coming up Monday evening, a kickoff fundraiser at Roger Williams Park Casino whose host committee includes former Mayor Angel Taveras, Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin and former Rep. Aaron Regunberg.

11. Two on housing … Governor McKee this week appointed Josh Saal as Rhode Island’s first housing czar, filling a position the General Assembly created earlier this year; Saal is a Brown grad currently working for New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development … also, Rhode Island Housing now has an interactive tool on its website that tracks evictions in Rhode Island.

12. The Providence schools have begun offering five-figure incentives to recruit new teachers.

13. A month after Fall River Mayor Paul Coogan won a second term, some big shifts are happening at Government Center. On Tuesday, the mayor’s office announced that Police Chief Jeffrey Cardoza is going on permanent leave until his retirement in March; on Friday, his office announced that Chief Financial Officer Mary Sahady is going on leave until her contract expires next month. Both are crucial jobs: the police department is in serious turmoil, and the city is facing a significant budget deficit.

14. The stock market liked what it heard from CVS executives Thursday at the first Investor Day since the pandemic began, with shares in Rhode Island’s biggest company ending the week up nearly 8%. Headlines out of the event included a new drive to compete on primary care, a 10% hike in the company’s dividend, and the challenges posed by “smash-and-grab” robberies.

15. Ed Fitzpatrick highlights a big business transaction that’s getting even less attention than the Lifespan-CNE hospital merger: the proposed sale of National Grid’s Rhode Island division to PPL. The Division of Public Utilities and Carriers is holding a hearing on the proposal Monday morning.

16. Many of us spent our Saturday night with Jimmy Stewart last weekend, when “It’s a Wonderful Life” got its annual airing on broadcast television. But did you know Stewart made a movie just a few years later where he played a Rhode Islander? That was in 1950, when Stewart starred in “The Jackpot,” based on a New Yorker story about a Wakefield man named James P. Caffrey who won a radio quiz show. The movie was written by Nora Ephron’s parents, and Wikipedia reports that Stewart later starred in a radio adaptation alongside then-First Daughter Margaret Truman.

17. Jack Spillane shares a great remembrance of the late Ralph Tavares.

18. Rhode Islander Miranda Featherstone offers a poignant essay on grief, children and the holidays.

19. Corrective or sacrilege? Peter Wood makes the case against Strunk and White.

20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — a look at Rhode Island’s new COVID-19 surge. Watch Sunday at 5:30 a.m. on WPRI 12 or 10 a.m. on Fox Providence, or listen on the radio Sundays at 6 p.m. on WPRO. You can also subscribe to Newsmakers as a podcast on iTunes. See you back here next Saturday.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.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

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