Rhode Island announces new COVID-19 measures as hospitals hit 'breaking point'

"Now's the time to act, it's not a time to just sit and wait," Gov. McKee said.

December 15, 2021, 4:13 PM

Rhode Island was looking to wind down COVID-19 orders in recent weeks. But amid a swift surge in cases and hospitalizations, Gov. Dan McKee announced new measures Wednesday, including a partial mask mandate, as health care facilities reach a "breaking point."

"Now's the time to act. It's not a time to just sit and wait," McKee said during a press briefing. "As we expected, because it is getting colder outside and more people are congregating inside, we've seen an increase of the COVID cases in Rhode Island, which has now brought us to this point where we need to address this issue head-on."

Starting Monday, masks will be required regardless of vaccination status for employees and patrons ages 2 and up at indoor venues with a capacity of over 250 people, including restaurants, retailers and entertainment venues. For venues under that capacity, masking or proof of vaccination will be required.

Additionally, masking or proof of vaccination will be required at indoor office spaces for public and private employers.

PHOTO: Rhode Island Democratic Gov. Dan McKee, front, speaks to an audience during his inaugural address during a ceremonial inauguration ceremony, March 7, 2021, in front of the Statehouse, in Providence, R.I.
Rhode Island Democratic Gov. Dan McKee, front, speaks to an audience during his inaugural address during a ceremonial inauguration ceremony, March 7, 2021, in front of the Statehouse, in Providence, R.I.
Steven Senne/AP, FILE

"Masking works, and it is a valuable tool that we have to use during this time to layer with vaccination as we advance our vaccination rate, particularly with the boosters," Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, said during the briefing.

Previously, state leaders had "strongly recommended" wearing a mask when in a crowded indoor public space. Some hospitals and health leaders have recently voiced support of an indoor mask mandate, as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have reached their highest levels since January and February, respectively.

More information on enforcement of the masking and vaccination policies will be released in the coming days, McKee said. The new requirements will be reevaluated 30 days after the executive order is signed, which is expected within the next 24 hours, he said.

Other measures the governor announced Wednesday included plans to distribute 100,000 at-home rapid COVID-19 tests -- representing about 10% of the state's population -- to residents over the next two weeks, as well as expand the state's "test to stay" program in more school districts. The state is also looking into expanding laboratory capacity to improve turnaround times on PCR tests taken at state-run sites.

PHOTO: Maya Goode, a COVID-19 technician, performs a test on Jessica Sanchez outside Asthenis Pharmacy in Providence, R.I., Dec. 7, 2021.
Maya Goode, a COVID-19 technician, performs a test on Jessica Sanchez outside Asthenis Pharmacy in Providence, R.I., Dec. 7, 2021.
David Goldman/AP

As health care facilities face a "staffing crisis," McKee said he has requested emergency staffing from FEMA to support local hospital systems.

The state is also looking to increase the volume of COVID-19 booster doses administered from currently about 50,000 a week to 100,000, and increase vaccination rates overall amid the transmission of the new omicron variant.

Less than a quarter of the state's population is not fully vaccinated, though unvaccinated individuals make up two-thirds of COVID-19 hospitalizations, state officials said.

"We have a lot of real-world local data on the effectiveness of vaccination," Alexander-Scott said. "This is not a hypothetical analysis."

The new measures come a week after McKee told Rhode Islanders in a video message that the state is considering "all options," including reinstating an indoor mask mandate, amid the increase in infections.

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