PROVIDENCE – Sixty Rhode Island National Guard troops will mobilize to Butler Hospital, a private psychiatric facility in the city, as part of the state’s efforts to address the crisis in the state’s health care system.
The troops will help with tasks that don’t require a high-level medical education, like transportation and observation, Gen. Chris Callahan, the adjutant general and commanding general of the state National Guard, said at a news conference Wednesday.
That will allow other hospitals to send psychiatric patients who don’t have critical medical needs to Butler to help free up beds elsewhere in a system congested by staff shortages and a rise in COVID-19 cases, state officials said. The Guard started training this week and is expected to deploy there on Jan. 18.
Care New England said Butler Hospital would temporarily repurpose the Ray Hall Conference Center to serve as a 25-bed unit for low-acuity behavioral patients who are stuck in emergency departments around the state.
“The role of the Rhode Island National Guard will be to monitor patients and ensure patient safety,” said Mary Marran, president and chief operating officer of Butler Hospital. “This will not require the RING to perform the duties of credentialed medical staff, and therefore will not add to the strain we are currently seeing on our medical workers.”
Guard troops are also currently helping the state with testing, but for right now Butler, owned by Care New England, is the only hospital they’re mobilizing to. Massachusetts’ National Guard has taken on more comprehensive roles.
“We’re continuing the conversations of how the National Guard can play a role in the current situation,” Governor Dan McKee said at a State House news conference announcing the move on Wednesday.
The state’s health care system is in crisis right now due to staffing shortages, particularly nurses. A rise in COVID-19 cases, even ones caused by the milder Omicron variant, are adding to the burden.
The National Guard deployment was weeks in the making. Some National Guard members with relevant medical expertise are already working in hospitals, making the state reluctant to pull them out of the jobs they already have. Others would have to be taken out of jobs in police departments or the state prison.
McKee also said Wednesday that the state was going to further ease licensing requirements to allow nurses and certified nursing assistants to work. These emergency temporary licenses would allow recent nurse graduates to get into the workforce, giving them 120 days to complete their exams while they work.
“There are many nurses who just graduated in December and are eager to work,” McKee said.
Also Wednesday, McKee said that he will extend the state’s indoor mask mandate. He can extend it until Feb. 14 under current executive powers, his office said. If it goes beyond Feb. 14, McKee will need to either consult with the General Assembly or declare a new state of emergency, and McKee said both options were on the table. The indoor mask mandate, which also allows venues that hold fewer than 250 people to check for vaccine status, was originally supposed to be re-evaluated after a month when it went into effect a little less than a month ago.
Rhode Island in recent weeks has seen an unprecedented spike in COVID-19 cases, far surpassing last winter’s total. The number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 hasn’t surpassed last winter’s toll, but has approached it.
The state’s pandemic modeling suggests it may soon be at its peak, with rapid declines expected to follow.
But even after the wave subsides, the state’s health care system will face challenges “for the foreseeable future,” Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, the director of the Department of Health, said Wednesday.
“All of these systems are critical, and they’ve all been impacted by what we’re seeing here,” Alexander-Scott said.
Also Wednesday, Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos urged Rhode Islanders to get vaccinated. She was vaccinated and boosted, and recently recovered from a COVID-19 infection. Without a vaccine and booster, she said, she believes she would have ended up in the hospital.
“You really don’t want to get this,” Matos said.
Brian Amaral can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.