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CORONAVIRUS

There’s a political war in Rhode Island over mask mandates and COVID

While the state’s largest hospital group and local health experts are in favor of a state-wide indoor mask mandate, the Department of Health and the governor have declined to say whether they would call for one

Masks are available for patrons who may have not brought their own at the Twin River Casino in Lincoln, Rhode Island, in June 2020.Gretchen Ertl/The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — The state’s largest hospital group and an organization that represents the state’s physicians said Thursday they support indoor mask mandates, a step that Gov. Dan McKee has so far been reluctant to impose even as COVID-19 cases rise and hospitals feel the strain.

“LIfespan fully supports a mandatory indoor mask mandate to stem the spread of COVID,” said Lifespan spokeswoman Kathleen Hart. Lifespan includes Rhode Island Hospital, Newport Hospital and the Miriam Hospital, along with other health care institutions in the state.

Carolyn Kyle, a spokeswoman for Landmark Medical Center in Woonsocket told the Globe in an email, “Due to the increase in COVID cases as well as continued staffing shortages in healthcare, Landmark supports reinstating the indoor mask mandate.”

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Both the Department of Health and the governor’s office declined to directly address questions from the Globe this week about whether the Department of Health was advocating for the McKee administration to adopt a mask mandate.

Department of Health spokesman Joseph Wendelken said in an email: “Masks help prevent serious COVID-19 illness and help prevent the transmission of COVID-19. They are an important tool to keep individuals and communities as safe as possible. For any questions specifically on mask mandates, I would refer you to the Governor’s Office.”

McKee spokeswoman Alana O’Hare said in an email Tuesday: “The Governor and his team are in daily contact with the Department of Health monitoring our COVID data. As the Governor said earlier today, all options remain on the table in terms of mitigation strategies including reinstating indoor masking.”

She declined to elaborate.

McKee, at a news conference Thursday, demurred when asked whether the state would reimpose a mask mandate if it hit certain benchmarks for cases and hospitalizations.

”What’s driving the concern is staffing, not the infection rates,” McKee said of the situation at hospitals right now.

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Asked whether the Department of Health was advising him to mandate masks indoors, McKee said: “They’re making certain recommendations, and we’re listening to all the recommendations. I wouldn’t say that they’ve made a recommendation, but we’re in conversations on that issue, on indoor masking, and where it would be.”

Lifespan doctors, meanwhile, said things like a mask mandate would help ease the pressure they’re facing right now, which is as high as it’s been since the beginning of the pandemic almost two years ago.

“We’re entering into another surge of COVID,” Dr. Kenneth Wood, Lifespan’s executive vice president and chief clinical officer said at a news conference on Zoom on Thursday. “The fourth surge. Each of the previous surges was challenging throughout the nation and challenging in Rhode Island. The difference this time is we are doing it in a setting of far fewer staff.”

Though cases and hospitalizations in Rhode Island are lower than they were at this time last year, Lifespan’s leaders echoed comments that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in March of 2020: Asking the National Guard for help, curtailing elective procedures, and encouraging people to seek care in other settings if possible.

Dr. Dean Roye, senior vice president for medical affairs and chief medical officer at Rhode Island Hospital, said the hospital is “not rationing care.”

But “we’re looking at our cases and occasionally, we do have to postpone cases so we can maintain our primary mission,” said Roye, who is a surgeon.

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Dr. Mitchell Levy, the director of critical care medicine for Lifespan, said the shrinking availability of critical care nurses was forcing the system to reduce the number of critical care beds.

“We do not have more COVID patients than we did during the first surge,” Levy said, “but the limited availability of critical care nurses is making things very challenging.”

On masking, pressure grew Thursday not just from McKee’s political opponents, but the health field at large. Steve DeToy, the director of government and public affairs for the Rhode Island Medical Society, said his group believes that indoor mask mandates are necessary. The medical society represents physicians in the state. They haven’t made their case explicitly to the McKee administration yet, he said, but they soon will.

Echoing concerns about the recent Providence College-URI basketball game at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, DeToy said: “You shouldn’t have 11,000 people at a sporting event with very few masks at this time of year, with the conditions we’re facing.”

According to the latest data from the state’s Department of Health, Rhode Island has a high level of COVID-19 transmission, with 559.5 total new cases per 100,000 people in the past 7 days. There were 655 new cases as of Thursday, and the test-positive rate is 5.8 percent.

Many have pressed the McKee administration for weeks to issue a mask mandate, but he has not imposed one, citing Rhode Island’s high vaccination rate and the importance of an economic recovery. ICU beds and hospitals are filling up with positive cases again in yet another wave, and the leaders of each of the health care systems said a mask mandate could help mitigate the spread of the virus.

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Some of McKee’s challengers in the governor’s race next year are also adding pressure, including former CVS executive Helena Foulkes and General Treasurer Seth Magaziner.

“Sadly, this current governor seems more afraid of criticism from the right than he is of the horrible reality that every day, more Rhode Islanders are being hospitalized due to COVID-19,” the Foulkes campaign said recently.

Others have insisted that they, not the government, will decide whether to mask up or not. Representative Blake Filippi, a Republican from Block Island, wrote on Twitter Thursday morning: “I will mask, or not mask, purely in my own discretion and judgment. No executive order by [Gov. Dan McKee] or regulation by [the state health department] will change that.”

McKee posted a video on social media on Wednesday that addressed how Rhode Island’s daily COVID-19 positive cases have increased.

“If we don’t take these next six weeks seriously, we risk all the progress that we’ve made together,” he said in the video. “This isn’t a time to panic — we know there will be new COVID-19 variants. But we also know what we need to do to protect ourselves and our loved ones. With so many people in Rhode Island already vaccinated. Now is the time to get your booster.”

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As of Thursday, more than 95 percent of the state’s adult population have received at least one shot of the vaccine.

“I want to be clear. All all options remain on the table in terms of mitigation strategies including reinstating an indoor mask mandate,” said McKee. “So Rhode Island, here’s what I’m asking of you: I’m asking you to continue to do your part.”




Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz. Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.