WARWICK, R.I. — Just one day before Rhode Island’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate deadline for health care workers, Governor Dan McKee doubled down and said it was “critical” for frontline workers to get fully vaccinated.
“We cannot put vulnerable patients at risk when they come to our facilities seeking care,” said McKee during a COVID-19 press conference at Pilgrim Senior Center in Warwick. “We know it’s the right thing to do to keep Rhode Islanders healthy.”
Health care workers who do not have at least one shot by Friday will be at risk of losing their job, and possibly, their license. The governor said two state-run facilities, Eleanor Slater Hospital and the Rhode Island Veterans’ Home, a nursing home, will be the only two that will take advantage of the state’s 30-day reprieve and have some unvaccinated workers still in on the job after the Oct. 1 deadline.
Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the state health department, said Thursday that the vaccine mandate assures patients that they are receiving safe, high-quality care.
The Oct. 1 deadline, which was set by the state health department and McKee’s office to get all health care workers in the state vaccinated, has come at a pivotal time when hospitals are short staffed. At some institutions, such as Lifespan Corp., the largest hospital system with the only Level 1 trauma center, has more than 16,000 employees but are still looking to fill 1,800 positions.
After the deadline, staffing shortages could get worse at some institutions.
US District judge Mary S. McElroy on Thursday denied a request from four health care workers in Rhode Island to consider religious exemptions to the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The group had filed a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against McKee and Alexander-Scott last week. The state’s mandate does not allow for religious exemptions.
At Westerly Hospital, which employs about 650 people, 5 percent are still unvaccinated. And according to Fiona Phelan, a spokeswoman for the hospital, about a half dozen workers have requested religious exemptions from the mandate. Because the state is not accepting religious exemptions, but only some medical exemptions, Phelan said, these employees will be terminated.
The state’s two largest health care systems, Lifespan and Care New England, said Wednesday that they will be in full compliance with the COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Executives at both systems told the Globe that workers who have not received at least one dose by Friday will be left jobless.
Nearly 68.3 percent of all eligible Rhode Islanders, which include those 12 and older, have been fully vaccinated and 75.3 percent have received at least one shot.
Since federal regulators approved the Pfizer’s booster shot for some populations, the state has administered 4,600 booster shots since Saturday, according to Tom McCarthy, the director of the state’s COVID-19 response team at the health department.