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RI HEALTH

No unvaccinated health care workers in R.I. have had their licenses suspended

With an Oct. 31 deadline looming, the state health department has only received about ‘a dozen’ complaints so far.

Pharmacy Manager Shannon Baker re-constitutes the vaccine before it's given to employees at Rhode Island Hospital. Lifespan high-risk health care employees including housekeeping, nursing, respiratory therapy, intensive care, and emergency medicine got the first doses of the coronavirus COVID-19 vaccine in the state.
Pharmacy Manager Shannon Baker re-constitutes the vaccine before it's given to employees at Rhode Island Hospital. Lifespan high-risk health care employees including housekeeping, nursing, respiratory therapy, intensive care, and emergency medicine got the first doses of the coronavirus COVID-19 vaccine in the state.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

PROVIDENCE — Nearly a month after the state’s deadline to get health care workers vaccinated, not a single worker has had their license suspended for failing to comply with the mandate.

When Governor Dan McKee announced there would be a vaccine mandate for all health care workers in the state, it was clear that any employee who went unvaccinated wouldn’t be allowed in the building.

In the regulation, posted by the state health department in mid-August, it also said anyone who violated the mandate, without an approved medical exemption, would be subjected to any other action under law and regulations “in addition to any action against the professional and/or facility license.”

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It was a strong approach, especially when the state said it wouldn’t allow workers to file religious exemptions either (no major world religion has come out against the COVID-19 vaccine). Workers filed a lawsuit, but a federal judge sided with the state and made clear that going without the vaccine meant consequences could include losing employment and possibly their professional license.

McKee’s administration then softened the mandate after 33 legislators asked his administration to back off for the “sake of public health,” and announced that workers could stay on for 30 days, unvaccinated, if their employer said they were “critical” for patient care. More than 90 facilities had to ask for that extension, including Lifespan, the state’s largest hospital system (A Lifespan spokeswoman previously said only partially vaccinated workers stayed on throughout October, and no unvaccinated employees kept their jobs).

But it’s nearly Oct. 31, and not a single health care worker in Rhode Island has had their license suspended or even received a fine because of not complying with the vaccine mandate.

“We have not taken a final disciplinary action on any healthcare provider’s license. All healthcare providers are entitled to due process when it comes to the State’s health regulations,” said Joseph Wendelken, a spokesman for the state health department, on Thursday. “There is an existing process that gets followed for administrative actions.”

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That existing process includes the recipient of a complaint, a review of the complaint, the opening of an investigation if it’s deemed warranted to have one, a notification of deficiencies if they are identified, and the issuance of a compliance order if the deficiencies are not addressed.

“An investigation would be warranted if there was a concern that someone who is unvaccinated was providing direct patient care, or working in a licensed healthcare facility,” said Wendelken. ”Action on the individual’s license would be the last step is that process.”

Wendelken said of the 60,000 licensed health care workers in the state, the state health department has only received “roughly a dozen complaints.”

Wendelken told the Globe the health department sent an e-mail to the 92 facilities that did not meet the vaccine deadline and had to, instead, submit Corrective Action Plans earlier this month because they were not in compliance at the time (these 92 facilities represent about 20 percent of the health care facilities in the state). Wendelken said the e-mail asked the facilities to “attest” they will be in compliance by Oct. 31.

For facilities not in compliance, he said the normal regulatory process needs to be followed. After going through each step, there could “eventually, potentially, [be] action on the facility’s license.”

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Brian Amaral of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.