PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Dan McKee’s decision to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for health care workers took center stage Tuesday at his weekly media availability with Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos.
Under the mandate, all staffers at state-licensed health care facilities are required to get vaccinated or obtain an approved medical exemption by Friday, Oct. 1.
“Taking a strong stand as the universities have, and others, is only to the benefit of ours and others,” McKee said. “The hospitals have done the same thing.”
Earlier on Tuesday, a group of state lawmakers wrote to McKee asking him to scrap the deadline, saying that while they encourage all adults to get vaccinated, they feel the front-line workers who have been working tirelessly to keep Rhode Islanders healthy and safe over the past year and a half shouldn’t risk losing their jobs if they don’t.
Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, R-Cranston, who’s both a lawmaker and hospital worker, was not among those who signed the letter. In a statement, she said she supports a compassionate exemption for those looking to opt out for medical or religious reasons, but also noted how hospital management and the nurses union both support the mandate.
Rep. Thomas Noret, D-Coventry, told 12 News the request is not an anti-vaccine statement, but if health care workers and first responders lose their jobs, it will only make matters worse for public health and safety.
“We’re going to create an even greater shortage of workers and potentially a public emergency crisis,” he said.
“Let’s not forget, for the last 18 months, they did this job prior to the vaccine,” Noret continued. “They did it flawlessly working every day, putting the time in, and now the thanks that we’re going to give them is: ‘Now that you’ve gotten us to this point where we’re below 3% [positive case rate] we’re going to take your job and you can go find someplace else to work.'”
Watch: McKee’s remarks (story continues below)
McKee said he hasn’t yet read the lawmakers’ letter. He told reporters he doesn’t want to see health care workers lose their jobs over the issue, but reiterated how important it is for them and all eligible Rhode Islanders to get immunized.
The governor said while he was not sure, he “would imagine” those who do not comply with the mandate and lose their job will be eligible for unemployment benefits.
“But at the same point in time, that’s not our intention here,” McKee said. “Our intention is to keep people employed and get them vaccinated.”
When asked if he’d consider easing the deadline, McKee said it will be discussed during his regular meeting with the R.I. Department of Health Tuesday evening.
McKee also said he’s in constant contact with hospitals, where “an overwhelming number” of staff members have already gotten at least one dose of the vaccine.
“We’ll be talking to them and making sure that people get vaccinated, and those who don’t, we have to kind of work in a way that protects them,” he added. “But at the same time, we have to protect the very people we’re trying to keep healthy.”
The letter says if action isn’t taken by McKee in an appropriate time frame, lawmakers will ask House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi to reconvene the General Assembly to address the mandate.
On Saturday, as McKee honored health care workers, first responders and other “COVID-19 heroes” at a special lighting of WaterFire, hundreds of those workers and their supporters held a rally in protest of the mandate.
Watch: McKee, Matos take questions from reporters (story continues below)
On Thursday, Providence students will head back to school amid a mask mandate as well as a teacher shortage.
Data obtained by Target 12 shows 188 teachers have left the school district so far in 2021, with more than 100 resigning or retiring this past summer.
Some teachers told Target 12 it became a hostile work environment, but McKee said he believes teachers left because of COVID-19. He said the district is doing well at making sure teachers are in schools, but there is still “a number of teachers left to assign to different classrooms.”
As the pandemic forced state leaders to call on retired doctors and nurses, they’re now calling on retired teachers for a second time.
“If they have an interest to really put a year in or a semester in in the Providence schools, we’re asking them to respond, especially in areas that are high need, the science in the middle school, the high school math and multi-language learning, in particular,” McKee said Tuesday.
McKee said he plans to sign a new executive order inviting retired educators to come back to work.
Former Gov. Gina Raimondo signed a similar order back in January, which allowed retired teachers to collect their pensions even if they were paid to work during the pandemic.
A spokesperson for McKee’s office told 12 News that executive order had not yet been filed as of late Tuesday afternoon.
Watch: Matos’ remarks (story continues below)
The most recent data from the R.I. Department of Health shows 68% of the state’s population is at least partially vaccinated, having gotten at least one dose, while 62% is fully vaccinated.
After the holiday weekend, the Health Department on Tuesday reported 853 new coronavirus infections since Friday, and also added 53 cases to daily totals prior to that.
Five more Rhode Islanders have died after contracting COVID-19, according to the data.
Currently, 152 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized in the state, with 24 people in intensive care and 14 on ventilators.
The Health Department also updated the weekly data on Tuesday, which showed a decline in the positivity rate (from 3.3% last week to 2.5% this week) but an increase in new hospital admissions by week, from 120 to 142.
The state’s rate of new cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days, which the CDC uses to track community transmission of the virus, fell to 181 on Tuesday.
McKee’s office said the governor will be holding briefings once a week going forward, the next being a COVID-19-specific briefing on Wednesday, Sept. 15, at 2 p.m.