Rhode Island is tackling a surge in new coronavirus cases caused by the highly contagious delta variant by requiring all health care workers at state-licensed facilities to get vaccinated by the beginning of October, Gov. Daniel McKee said Tuesday.
Until then, unvaccinated workers will be required to wear surgical masks while on the job and get tested twice weekly, the Democratic governor said during the state's first coronavirus news conference in two weeks.
The state is also focusing on unvaccinated school children who are eligible for a shot, and neighborhoods with low vaccination rates, state officials said.
"Rhode Island's vaccination efforts are going strong, and we continue to be in the top five in the country in vaccinations," McKee said. "We know that in order to stay ahead of the delta variant and keep Rhode Islanders out of the hospital, we must keep that going."
He said there are about 195,000 eligible state residents who have not yet been inoculated against the disease. More than 665,000 people in the state have been fully vaccinated, according to state data.
"If you haven't already, it is time to get vaccinated," McKee said.
The state Department of Health estimates that 75% of new cases in the state, which have increased 200% in the past few weeks, are caused by the delta variant, department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said.
The state's weekly positivity rate, weekly number of new hospitalizations, and weekly number of new cases per 100,000 population have all jumped in the past week, according to the department.
"The key message for people today is that the vaccines we have help protect against serious illness from the delta variant," by mitigating symptoms, keeping people out of the hospital and reducing the chance of dying from the disease, Alexander-Scott said.
To reach the unvaccinated, the state is hosting 60 popup vaccine clinics through the end of August alone in areas with low vaccination rates, including neighborhoods in Providence, Pawtucket and Woonsocket, said Tom McCarthy, executive director of the state's COVID-19 response team.
The state is also ensuring that when the school year starts later this month, every public school district has access to either an on-site or community-based vaccine clinic.
The state is also working with businesses to help employees get vaccinations, also through onsite clinics, McCarthy said.
There are no plans to reinstitute an indoor mask mandate, McKee said, although masks are recommended for school settings, he said. Individual districts are being given leeway to come up with their own policies.
McKee suggested people carry a mask with them wherever they go so they can put it on if they enter a business or building where it is required.