We’ve seen this play out before, but there was real hope we might not go through it again. It’s disheartening – sickening, really – and yes, a bit scary, too.
COVID-19 cases are on the rise again, fueled by the continued spread of what’s been dubbed the delta variant of the coronavirus. This mutation, which has been surging across the globe, is significantly more transmissible than earlier strains, putting unvaccinated people at particular risk. So-called “breakthrough” infections of fully vaccinated people remain rare but have been documented.
On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance advising a return to indoor masking – even for fully vaccinated people – in places where the rate of transmission of the virus is currently designated as “substantial” or “high.” Previously, the CDC issued guidance calling for mask wearing by all people in K-12 schools this fall.
Rhode Island, based on data available through the state Department of Health, falls into the “substantial” transmission category, with nearly 61 new cases per 100,000 residents during the past week.
The positivity rate, as of the July 27 data update, stood at 2.7 percent – below the 5 percent threshold long viewed as a key indicator, but up significantly from recent weeks. New hospital admissions remain low, but have ticked up slightly.
The good news? Rhode Island remains among the leaders nationally in terms of vaccination rates. As of July 27, according to the Department of Health, 61.2 percent of all Rhode Islanders – and 71.9 percent over the age of 18 – are fully vaccinated.
On Wednesday, as this piece was written, Gov. Dan McKee had yet to make an anticipated announcement regarding whether he would follow the CDC’s new masking guidance. Based on his comments to members of the media Tuesday, however, he is deeply reluctant to reimpose masking requirements.
“Our data does not show a reason to pull an alarm without a fire,” he said during a regular press conference with Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos.
It’s a difficult position for McKee, perhaps the most challenging he’s faced since taking office in March. For months, he has been able to embrace what is, for him, an extremely comfortable (and, frankly, politically beneficial) role – lifter of mandates, bearer of good news, champion of reopening and recovery.
Now, the picture is again muddled. As at so many prior points in the last 18 months, optimism has been clouded by uncertainty and anxiety.
Does the protection provided by vaccinations fade, and if so, how quickly? Will booster shots be needed? Are more dangerous variants on the way, perhaps even versions of the virus impervious to vaccines? And how can we convince those who continue to refuse vaccination that they’ve made the wrong choice, both for themselves and the community at large?
Former Gov. Gina Raimondo, to her credit, acted swiftly at the outset of the pandemic. She faced a far more precarious situation and an unconscionable vacuum of leadership at the federal level. Over time, her approach to the crisis clearly wore on many Rhode Islanders, and her early popularly ebbed.
The terrain on which McKee now stands has shifted dramatically from those early days. He, too, faces a number of thorny issues and decisions, from mask wearing to whether state employees ought to be subject to a vaccine mandate (as Rhode Island’s two largest health systems, Care New England and Lifespan, have this week announced for their own workers). Thankfully for us all, more functional federal leadership is now in place.
With COVID continuing to sicken our neighbors, the state’s economy continuing a slow recovery, and an election campaign just months way, there’s a lot at stake for Rhode Island as a whole and for the still-young McKee administration.
By the time this is published, we’ll know more about how our governor is proceeding on some of these issues. Reports Wednesday afternoon suggested McKee would back the CDC’s school masking mandate, but he seemed unlikely to fully embrace the indoor mask requirement for fully vaccinated Rhode Islanders. He also appears loath, at this point, to adopt a vaccination requirement for state workers, pointing to the state’s continued high ranking nationally.
For now, we view McKee’s cautious approach – following the federal government’s lead, but not unquestioningly – as prudent. We urge him to continue taking whatever steps are possible to increase the ranks of the fully vaccinated in our state. That, above all else, is the way to stave off any backsliding as this new, murky chapter of the pandemic wears on.