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Biden to send military medical teams to Rhode Island as COVID-19 surges

State officials said the teams of military health care workers are expected to help triage patients and offset staffing challenges at emergency departments.

President Joe Biden speaks about the government's COVID-19 response, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022.Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — President Biden announced Thursday that six states, including Rhode Island, will be getting medical military personnel to help alleviate staffing shortages in hospitals.

Medical teams made up of doctors, nurses, and other health care workers will be sent to Rhode Island Hospital, which is the state’s only Level 1 Trauma center. Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee’s office said 23 medical personnel from the Department of Defense will arrive at the end of next week and will include a mix of doctors, nurses, medics, and support staff. The team will be based in the emergency department and the surgical unit of Rhode Island Hospital for the next 30 days.


A National Disaster Medical System team of 14 medical workers will also arrive next week at Kent Hospital’s emergency department and will be stationed there for two weeks.

Officials said the teams are expected to help triage patients arriving at hospitals to offset staffing challenges at emergency departments.

“When you want to get something done, you call in the military,” said Biden at the White House on Thursday. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell also attended the president’s announcement.

Rhode Island Hospital’s chief medical officer Dr. G. Dean Roye said he is not sure how many workers are coming to the hospital, but was told that “it’s supposed to be a full team,” which could include physicians, nurses, and other medical workers.

“I don’t know what the particular skillset of this group is, but we have a need and we can use them,” said Roye in an interview with the Globe. “I don’t believe we are at the peak of Rhode Island’s latest COVID surge.”

Roye said 30 percent of positions at Rhode Island Hospital are vacant.

For weeks, McKee faced mounting pressure to mobilize the National Guard and call in Federal Emergency Management Agency workers to help in the state’s hospitals amid a staff shortage.


He stalled writing a letter to Criswell requesting the agency’s medical personnel to assist in the state’s efforts to address staffing shortages within the hospital system until Dec. 15.

“We promised Rhode Islanders that we would pursue every resource to alleviate stress on our hospital system and support critical staffing needs. Yesterday, our whole of government COVID response team announced a series of initiatives and partnerships to help us make good on that promise,” said McKee in a statement Thursday.

The governor’s office said it would provide additional details about the FEMA medical personnel in the coming days.

Biden’s announcement comes as McKee’s office confirmed that state health director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott is stepping down from her post. She will stay on as director for the next two weeks while the governor conducts a new search for a health department leader.

Biden also plans to send military medical teams to Michigan, New Mexico, New York, New Jersey, and Ohio. These new deployments will be on top of other federal medical personnel who have already been sent to states with acute shortages.

Biden called Rhode Island a “hard-hit state” during this latest COVID-19 surge.

More than 18,000 military medical personnel have been deployed to 24 states since Thanksgiving, said Biden. Their deployments have been paid for by the American Rescue Plan.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, took to Twitter and said he appreciated the president responding to hospital needs in Rhode Island.


“My office communicated the importance of this help to the administration,” he wrote Thursday. “Nurses, doctors, and workers at Rhode Island Hospital have held the fort heroically as [unvaccinated] omicron patients swamped its capacity. We owe them deep, deep gratitude.”

Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, said he has been in “close contact with the U.S. Department of Defense and the White House since plans were first announced last month.”

“COVID-19 is surging worldwide and Rhode Island is not immune. The good news is our high rate of vaccination uptake is preventing a major increase in deaths,” said Reed Thursday. “But more action is needed to stop the spread and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.”

On Wednesday, McKee mobilized 60 Rhode Island National Guard troops to Butler Hospital, a private psychiatric facility in the city, as part of the state’s effort 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, such as with transportation and observation, according to General Chris Callahan, the adjutant general and commanding general of the state National Guard.

Biden encouraged all Americans to get fully vaccinated, including getting their booster shots, “for the sake of the country.” He said he will unveil plans to provide both high quality face masks and COVID-19 tests to Americans for free next week.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.