PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — As Gov. Dan McKee weighs how soon he will lift Rhode Island’s school mask mandate, his Democratic primary opponents are urging caution, in part due to concern about conditions in the state’s hospitals.
The governors of Connecticut and three other states announced Monday they are setting end dates for students and teachers to wear masks over the coming weeks. McKee’s advisers said he has been reviewing when Rhode Island can take the same step, with new details expected to emerge at his coronavirus briefing on Wednesday.
Like the other governors, McKee is expected to set a future date for when the school mask mandate would end, giving school officials and parents time to prepare for the change.
R.I. Health Department data shows coronavirus cases have plunged since the omicron peak last month, though the agency still classifies transmission as “high.” The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Rhode Island has fallen by roughly half since Jan. 5.
Ahead of McKee’s briefing, 12 News asked the governor’s four announced political challengers — all Democrats — whether they think it’s time to end the mask mandate.
Former Secretary of State Matt Brown was unequivocal: “It’s too soon to end school mask mandates in Rhode Island.”
“Over the course of the pandemic Rhode Island has had more COVID cases per 100,000 people than any other state in the country, and right now we are still coming out of the largest COVID spike our state has seen,” Brown said in a statement.
“We should only end school mask mandates when we’re sure it is safe for students, teachers, and parents, and that should be determined in consultation with public health experts,” he added.
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea said she understood the frustration over masks in schools, and has seen the effects it has had on her own children. But she also expressed concern about continued strain on the state’s hospitals, citing high ICU usage, paused elective surgeries and the deployment of National Guard personnel to help with staffing.
“We all want masking to end, but an end date for school masks needs to be tied to public health goals – vaccination rates and overall infection and hospitalization rates,” Gorbea said.
Gorbea also accused McKee of failing to provide “clear leadership” in fighting the pandemic.
“Until the governor allows public health officials to provide those metrics, and vaccination rates in our school population remain low and uneven in comparison to adult vaccination rates, it is premature to discuss an end to the mask mandate,” she said.
McKee’s team has rejected such criticism, saying he is regularly consulting with leaders at the Health Department and elsewhere, and noting steps he has taken such as instituting the school mask mandate last summer and implementing a vax-or-mask rule for most indoors spaces this winter.
Former CVS executive Helena Foulkes echoed Gorbea, acknowledging that Rhode Islanders are “tired” after two years of COVID-related restrictions. She said she consulted with Tom McCarthy, who stepped down last month as leader of the Health Department’s COVID response, about ending masks in schools.
“I believe the two most important questions that should guide our decision-making are: 1. Do our hospitals have enough capacity given current staffing levels? 2. Do our schools have the staff and supplies they need to successfully manage programs like test-to-stay and ensure minimal disruption to in-person learning?” Foulkes said in a statement.
She continued, “Given current conditions, we should lift the mask mandate in schools when the answer to both of those questions is yes.” She added that she hopes McKee administration officials are “doing everything in their power” to ensure those conditions are in place.
(Separately on Tuesday, Foulkes released a policy plan for increasing Rhode Island’s supply of health care workers, with proposals including to expand the Rhode Island Promise free-tuition program to nursing students and to increase the state’s Medicaid reimbursement rates.)
A fourth Democratic candidate, community activist Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz, also expressed concern about removing masks in schools.
“To end the school mask mandate before arriving at a steady state of lower infection rates, and while still at the peak of flu season, would be to completely ignore the stress that testing and symptomatic care have placed on our healthcare systems,” Muñoz said in an email.
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 and Facebook