Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee announced Tuesday that health care workers at facilities licensed by the state will have to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 1 or else be tested twice a week and continue to wear a mask.
It applies to everyone except those with medical exemptions and covers facilities ranging from nursing homes to state-run hospitals and private facilities, McKee said at a news conference Tuesday.
Health care workers who are not fully vaccinated must continue wearing masks, as everyone is right now, and will also have to get tested for COVID-19 twice a week as soon as the Department of Health puts out the relevant regulations, according to department spokesman Joseph Wendelken. That twice-weekly testing could start before Oct. 1, and will continue beyond that deadline, he said.
As for whether workers could lose their jobs or face other consequences if they don’t get vaccinated, McKee said, “We’ll deal with that if, in fact, that happens. I’m not expecting that to happen.”
Lifespan and Care New England, the state’s two biggest hospital groups, already announced their own vaccination mandates, with more than 70 percent of their employees now vaccinated.
But vaccination rates are lower at other facilities. For example, at the state-run Eleanor Slater Hospital, just 47 percent of the staff had been vaccinated as of July. Eleanor Slater would be among the facilities whose health care workers would be subject to the mandate.
The order applies to both private and public facilities, McKee said.
However, amid a surge in cases that has moved Rhode Island into the “high” category of transmission, McKee stopped short of mandating masks in public places, saying, “If you want to wear a mask in public, wear a mask in public.”
J. Michael Downey, the president of Council 94, a union whose membership includes health care workers at places like Eleanor Slater Hospital, said the union was still seeking some details the mandate. But, he said, it seemed like the state had struck a reasonable compromise to keep staff and their patients safe, while also giving people who really don’t want to be vaccinated an option to get tested frequently instead.
Downey also said his members would be interested in an exemption from the mandate for religious reasons, although the state did not say there would be one.
“Our expectation is that there are some reasonable accommodations that can be made if one of our members truly does not want to be vaccinated,” Downey said.