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CORONAVIRUS

R.I. toughens vaccine mandate for health care workers

The newly finalized regulations forbid unvaccinated workers from entering state-licensed facilities unless they have an approved exemption

Pharmacy Manager Shannon Baker prepares a new COVID-19 vaccine to be administered to a Lifespan Health Care worker, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in Providence, R.I.
Pharmacy Manager Shannon Baker prepares a new COVID-19 vaccine to be administered to a Lifespan Health Care worker, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in Providence, R.I.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — If health care workers at state-licensed facilities in Rhode Island aren’t fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Oct. 1, and they don’t have an approved exemption, they won’t be allowed in the building, according to regulations the Department of Health put out Tuesday.

The formal regulations are more stringent than Governor Dan McKee’s administration had originally explained when they were unveiled a week ago.

McKee’s administration had originally said that until Oct. 1, health care workers who weren’t vaccinated would have to submit to twice-weekly testing and continue to wear a mask. But he largely avoided answering the question when asked what would happen if a health care worker at a state-licensed facility is not vaccinated after Oct. 1.

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Now the answer is clear: They won’t be able to report to work.

The regulations affect both private and public facilities licensed by the state Department of Health, including hospitals, assisted living facilities, nursing homes and even clinical laboratories.

What’s also newly clarified in the regulations: Health care providers even outside of state-licensed facilities must also be vaccinated.

That includes anyone licensed by the Department of Health to provide health care services, including podiatrists, physical therapists, emergency medical service providers or other types of physicians. And the definition of health care worker at a licensed facility sweeps in people with dietary, housekeeping, billing, and other roles that are not directly involved in patient care but might be exposed to “infectious agents.”

Failing to comply could mean administrative action against the facility, or action against a provider’s license.

Those with medical exemptions must continue to comply with the masking and testing requirements.

Any medical exemption has to be signed by a licensed physician, physician assistant or advanced practice registered nurse, and must say that the worker or provider is exempt for medical reasons in line with federal guidelines and determined as acceptable by the facility, the regulations say.

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United Nurses and Allied Professionals, a regional union, said in a statement that it agreed with the mandate — but echoed previous comments that it and other unions have raised about implementation, saying it needs to be collectively bargained.

“While we respect the governor’s dedication to ending this horrific pandemic and support the mandatory vaccine requirement, there are issues surrounding the implementation of the mandate that we believe should be bargained, including the scope of medical exemptions and flexibility around the October 1st deadline for our members who have yet to get their first vaccine shot,” Lynn Blais, president of the union, said in an emailed statement Wednesday. “We believe the UNAP, the state of Rhode Island, and hospital employers must keep an open dialogue on these issues, especially in light of the ongoing nursing shortage.”


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.