Lifespan officials call for R.I. indoor mask mandate to slow COVID-19 surge

TOP OFFICIALS FROM LIFESPAN CORP. are calling on Rhode Island leaders to reinstitute an indoor mask mandate on Wednesday, Dec. 9 to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Rhode Island.
TOP OFFICIALS FROM LIFESPAN CORP. are calling on Rhode Island leaders to reinstitute an indoor mask mandate on Wednesday, Dec. 9 to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Rhode Island.

PROVIDENCE – Fearing a surge of infections this winter while facing staffing challenges as a result of pandemic burnout, health care officials from Lifespan Corp. are now calling for a statewide indoor mask mandate in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Gov. Daniel J. McKee continues to resist calls for reinstituting the mask mandate, releasing a video on Twitter Wednesday recommending that Rhode Islanders wear masks voluntarily when going into crowded places, get tested for COVID-19 and “take the next six weeks seriously.” However, McKee said an indoor mask mandate “remains on the table.”

Dr. Dean Roye, senior vice president for medical affairs and chief medical officer at Rhode Island Hospital, and others from Lifespan said an indoor mask mandate would help alleviate the high transmission rate of COVID-19 throughout the state in recent weeks, ahead of the upcoming holidays when people are expected to gather. Stopping even a small amount of people from getting infected and hospitalized would be helpful, Roye said.

Lifespan officials said it’s especially important right now for its emergency departments that are facing a shortage of critical care nurses after many of them left the profession following previous surges of COVID-19 that overwhelmed workers.

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“This is one of those circumstances where we are somewhat obligated to do everything we can to reverse the curve and flatten transmission,” Roye said. “This is one of those interventions that is relatively low tech, but it’s clear that it does decrease the transmission.”

Lifespan currently has a 30% vacancy rate for emergency rooms beds across its system, which includes The Miriam Hospital, Rhode Island Hospital and Hasbro Children’s Hospital, said Dr. Mitchell Levy, director of critical care medicine for Lifespan. The Lifespan hospital system has 180 critical care and intermediate beds in its emergency departments, most of which are at Rhode Island Hospital, Levy said. He did not immediately have the number of critical care beds available in the system before the pandemic.

Lifespan is treating 90 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, with another 25 in recovery, said Dr. Ken Wood, chief clinical officer for Lifespan.

Effectively, the size of our hospitals has decreased because we don’t have as many staff,” Wood said. “It’s very challenging for the nurses and physicians that are there because we’re trying to care for a large number of patients with fewer staff. It is as crowded as it’s been in the last couple of years.”

Many critical health care nurses retired, Wood said, and there’s not a steady stream of newcomers entering the field.

“We’ve seen a significant exodus of health care providers for multiple reasons, not the least of which is the first three surges in COVID,” Wood said. “We’re making every effort to retain folks who might be thinking of leaving and recruiting people in. There aren’t people out there. It is exceedingly difficult to find people to come in.”

The staffing challenges are even leading Lifespan to inquire with the McKee administration into the possibility of Rhode Island National Guard troops being sent to the hospitals to provide assistance as emergency departments do their best to triage patients.

“Those discussions have been entertained,” Wood said. “We’ll actually pursue that as an option. Part of the challenge is people who are [serving in the National Guard] are volunteers who tend to be already working.”

Marc Larocque is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Larocque@PBN.com.

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