Delivery of Care

What you see is not what you get

The latest news conference by Gov. Dan McKee shows the growing disconnect around policy and politics when it comes to mandates around vaccines and masks – and how reporters have become practiced in hiding their own biases around masking

Photo by Richard Asinof

Jim Hummel, left, and John DePetro, were among the unmasked reporters at the Aug. 10 news conference held by the McKee administration.

Photo by Richard Asinof

Anita Baffoni, left, and Brian Crandall, center, were also reporters who chose not to wear masks at the Aug. 10 news conference.

Photo by Richard Asinof

From left: Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, Gov. Dan McKee; Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, and Tom McCarthy.

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By Richard Asinof
Posted 8/16/21
The highly contagious Delta variant continues to wreak havoc in Rhode Island and across the nation, disrupting hopes for a transition back to normalcy and economic recovery. The policy debate over masking promises to become the next variant in the culture wars. Reporters that chose not to wear masks in public need to become more accountable about their choices.
What are the best metrics to measure the psychic toll on health care workers as a result of the coronavirus pandemic? What are the intersection points of convergence when it comes to policy around climate change threats and future coronavirus pandemic threats? When will reporters be held accountable for their choices around wearing or not wearing masks in public? How many reporters doing stories about the FDA allowing booster vaccines for those who are immuno-compromised actually know such people in their own lives? Why did the R.I. Department of Education decide not to hold a virtual meeting around school openings scheduled for Tuesday, Aug.17?
One of the strategies being pursued by the McKee administration is conducting pop-up vaccination clinics in communities that have traditionally been underserved by the health care delivery system. Time and again, the assumptions around health care delivery regarding access to primary care providers, around access to health insurance, around access to transportation, have been blown up by the inequities highlighted by the pandemic. Moving forward, the question is: What kinds of stipulations will be put into place as part of any agreement on a potential merger by Lifespan, Care New England, and Brown University, as ordered by the R.I. Attorney General, in his role as public health advocate?

PROVIDENCE – Because all of the cameras were focused upon Gov. Dan McKee, Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the R.I. Department of Health, and Tom McCarthy, director of the COVID-19 response at the Department of Health, what was not recorded at the news conference held on Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 10, was a narrative of apparent deception being practiced by the news media, as they posed questions about a potential return of a mask mandate for Rhode Islanders, in response to the surge of Delta variant cases of COVID-19.

Many of the most ardent questioners from members of the news media were not wearing masks themselves. [Editor’s Note: To be clear, wearing a mask was only recommended but not required at that time – the new state directive by the McKee administration ordering that masks had to be worn by all people working in or entering state facilities was not issued until two days later, on Thursday, Aug. 12, to take effect on Friday, Aug. 13.]

The big news at the news conference had been that the McKee administration was issuing a mandate that all health care workers in state-licensed health care facilities needed to be vaccinated by Oct. 1, including all public and private enterprises and nursing homes.

At the same time, the McKee administration announced that it had decided not to issue a mandate for teacher vaccinations or for masking in schools. In his 15-minute introductory statement, Gov. McKee had said: “As a reminder, per CDC guidance, the state is strongly recommending that [school] districts create a policy that requires all students, faculty and staff to wear a mask indoors, in school settings, at the beginning of the school year. Some of our young people do not meet age requirements to get vaccinated, and we have to use all tools available to us to keep them safe and to prevent in-classroom learning disruption.”

And yes, at the time of the news conference, the wearing of a mask in public was still considered to be a matter of personal choice – a choice offered to those who had been fully vaccinated in Rhode Island, even as the rapid spread of the Delta variant was wreaking havoc across the nation, in classrooms and emergency rooms, and as Republican governors in Florida and Texas were attempting to forbid any mask mandates in schools, even as health care systems in both states were being overwhelmed by new cases of the highly contagious Delta variant.

How contagious is the Delta variant in Rhode Island? “Because of this heightened contagiousness and transmissibility, we estimate that more than 75 percent of our cases are likely now Delta variant cases, this much more aggressive and contagious form,” said Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the R.I. Department of Health, at the news conference. “It is why we have seen a more than 200 percent increase in our case rate over the last few weeks.”

What if one of the unmasked reporters spreads or contracts the Delta variant of COVID-19? Will they go into quarantine?

A matter of survival
For me, as someone who is immuno-compromised, because of the infusion treatments I have been undergoing that will hopefully arrest the antibody that has been eating away at the myelin in the thoracic region of my spinal cord, making it increasingly difficult to walk, it is more than a matter of personal choice – it is a matter of survival.

So, yes, I wear a mask; I avoid crowds; and I am vigilant in terms of personal hygiene around hand washing and social distancing. Further, I was one of the first – if not the very first person – in Rhode Island to receive a third dose of the Moderna vaccine, once such doses were approved by the FDA on Friday afternoon, Aug. 13,

Translated, I have a heightened sense of awareness about masking – and take notice of all those that do not, including members of the news media and patients at a physical therapy facility.

To mask, or not to mask, that is the question
So, there was NBC Channel 10’s Brian Crandall, unmasked, asking questions of Dr. Alexander-Scott. Crandall then posted on Twitter the following exchange: “Masks continue to work, nothing has changed, RIHEALTH director Alexander-Scott says. “People who are vaccinated have the option” to wear a mask indoors. “This is a personal choice I am making,” Alexander-Scott says of wearing a mask.

Of course, Crandall did not mention that he himself had apparently made the opposite decision, choosing not to wear a mask indoors. In contrast, Crandall’s camera operator had chosen to wear a mask, one with an IBEW logo.

Question: If TV news reporters such as Crandall are unwilling to be transparent about their own decisions in regard to mask wearing, why should the public trust what they report?

Also, inexplicably left out of Crandall’s tweet was the substantive part of Alexander-Scott’s answer, the context about why it was a personal choice she was making about masking – because of her two-year-old son, who was too young to be vaccinated.

Here is Dr. Alexander-Scott’s full response: “Another important tool, which the Governor touched on, is masking. Masks continue to work – nothing has changed – to limit the spread of COVID-19; the science and data are making that fact clearer and clearer.”

Dr. Alexander-Scott continued: “And, as we learn more about the Delta variant and how contagious it is, why not use one of the additional tools we have [masking] to help protect yourself and your loved ones.”

Further, Dr. Alexander-Scott said: “People who are vaccinated have the option to still wear a mask indoors, in public places. That’s important to know. This is something that I am doing now, given that our community transmission rates have risen so significantly. This is a personal choice that I am making for my health and the health of my family, including my son, who is too young to be vaccinated. It is our responsibility to encourage that for all of you.”

Minutes earlier, in his introductory remarks, the Governor had articulated a different personal – and perhaps political – view on masking:

“As we’ve been saying, the vaccines are safe, and they are very effective in preventing death and hospitalizations. However, as we have also been saying, the Delta variant is more contagious, and we are seeing in the data that it is still possible to get COVID after you are vaccinated.

Now, the vaccine will help prevent you from being hospitalized or dying, but there are still side effects.

If you are one of the Rhode Islanders who does get COVID, even after you are vaccinated, some of the side effects are that you will feel sick, and you may need to quarantine: if your child gets COVID, they will be out of school.

Now, there are ways to help mitigate the risk of catching COVID, and we know that they are effective. Now, before I say anything else, I want to say no one at this table is suggesting that the state impose a mask mandate again, right now.

What we are saying is that you and your family need to know the risk of the Delta variant, and then, if you are vaccinated, make the decision that is best for you.

If you want to wear a mask in public, wear a mask in public.

Yesterday I was shopping with my daughter for hiking boots, and one of the stores I walked into, I needed to put a mask on, and I did.

So, I carry a mask. The next store, where we actually bought the boots, there wasn’t a requirement, that was posted on the door, we went in, and I didn’t wear a mask.

So, it is going to be dependent on where you are, but I’m carrying a mask with me to accommodate those who feel that it is necessary in those facilities.

Be courteous and do as you see and are asked.

What we are saying is: you and your families need to know the risk of the Delta variant.

And that if you are vaccinated, make the decision that is best for you if you want to wear a mask in public.

And this seems to be what Rhode Islanders are doing already.

Like I said, I have seen it myself, some folks were wearing a mask, some were not, They made a decision for themselves based on their comfort in weighing the risks.

Cognitive dissonance at work
In contrast to Crandall and others, Bill Bartholomew, from BTown Podcast, wearing a mask, asked about a letter sent by the R.I. Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics to all Rhode Island school superintendents saying that all students should be masked. Alexander-Scott said that while she appreciated the letter, she would not commit to any student mask mandates.

Anita Baffoni, a reporter from Channel 12, was not wearing a mask; John DePetro was not wearing a mask; Michael Bilow of Motif Magazine chose to wear a mask; and G. Wayne Miller from The Providence Journal was also wearing a mask.

The question is: how does the decision about whether to wear a mask in public – or not – define the narrative of the news reporter?

What the public does not see
Crandall, of course, was not alone among the reporters asking questions about mandates to wear masks, who were not wearing masks.

There was also Jim Hummel, the host of “A Lively Experiment” on RI PBS, also unmasked, questioning when Gov. McKee would be willing to pull the fire alarm over the dramatic rise in cases resulting from the Delta variant of COVID-19.

Question: Would Hummel’s questioning of the Governor be seen in a different light if the cameras had recorded his unmasked presence?

Here is the transcript of the dialogue that Hummel had with the Governor:

HUMMEL: As a follow-up to Bill [Bartholomew’s] question, why no mandate, if you feel that strongly about schools? What we are hearing from the communities is that parent’s groups are putting pressure on the school committees; they feel that the mask wearing for kids is going to [be] onerous this fall. The superintendents have said, look, if the state feels strongly enough to do a mandate, we will take the path of least resistance. …They are all worried.

You are stepping up to the cliff but you’re not going over it. Why are you not mandating rather than strongly suggesting? What would you say to those superintendents right now [who say]: “I’m a superintendent and I’m not going to have a mask policy?” What would you say?

GOV. McKEE: I would ask the superintendents to follow the CDC guidance.

HUMMEL: …which is that they should be wearing masks.

GOV. McKEE: They should be following the CDC guidance; that’s what we strongly recommend.

HUMMEL: So, why not just have the state mandate it [the wearing of masks] and take that onus off of them?

GOV. McKEE: We may have to huddle with the health department. What we are doing with the vaccinations and the mandate for the health care workers [to be vaccinated] is going to come out of the Health Department in terms of their role in terms of meeting a health issue to make that determination.

We may have the authority in the Governor’s office to do another mandate; we may not. But we know that the Health Department does, if it rises to a level of critical nature in terms of a health issue.

Distortion and disruption
The news conference, of course, was held in an attempt to show that the McKee administration was well-prepared to handle the contagious Delta variant of COVID-19, which has caused a spike in hospitalizations and in new cases diagnosed in the state, with the fall opening of schools occurring in the next few weeks.

Translated, the messaging of the news conference was to display that the McKee administration had things under control, despite the evidence that the spread of the Delta variant continues to be out of control.

Among the messages delivered by the McKee included the following [did you hear any of them in the news reports?]:

• Vaccinations work, they are effective, and they help protect against hospitalizations and deaths from the Delta variant.

• Further, having had the coronavirus in the past does not confer long-term immunity, according to Dr. Alexander-Scott. “If you’ve had coronavirus in the past, relying on that alone as the immunity to protect you from the Delta variant is insufficient,” she said.

• Some 194,000 Rhode Islanders 12 years and older who are eligible to receive the vaccine remain unvaccinated.

• The messaging being promoted by Gov. McKee around vaccines was captured in the phrase, repeated numerous times, “It is time,” not necessarily the most catchy refrain.

• All state-licensed medical facilities will be required to have their employees vaccinated as of Oct. 1. It is unclear what will happen to employees who refuse to get vaccinated.

• While the Governor said he lacked the authority to issue an executive order to order any mandates regarding masking, that authority resides with the R.I. Department of Health, he issued a mandate requiring masking for all state buildings two days later.

• The Governor said that he carries a mask with him and he respects business establishments that require masks,

• Some 60 pop-up vaccination clinics are scheduled in the next weeks, according to Tom McCarthy, who directs the R.I. Department of Health’s COVID response. A pop-up clinic in the West End of Providence in Bucklin Park resulted in 135 newly vaccinated individuals, including a number of middle-school students.

State police unmasked
Among those not wearing masks were the state police officers on duty outside and then inside of the news conference. At the end of the news conference, at the second-floor elevators, when asked by ConvergenceRI why he was not masked, one state police officer said he had had both shots, and that masks were not mandated – yet.

Of course, that has now perhaps changed, given the new directive by Gov. McKee, issued on Thursday, Aug. 12, requiring anyone entering state buildings beginning on Friday, Aug. 13, to now be masked, state police included. Stay tuned.

Culture wars over masks
In the aftermath of the news conference, it has become clear that the resistance to wearing masks remains one of those cultural wars playing out in Rhode Island – and the nation.

The McKee administration had attempted to thread the needle by saying that masks were recommended but not required, which immediately drew the ire of declared Democratic gubernatorial candidates in 2022, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and R.I.Treasurer Seth Magaziner.

In particular, Gorbea made masking a campaign issue moving forward. In response to the Governor’s news conference, Gorbea tweeted: One of the most important roles of government is to protect people. Leadership means making tough decisions. The new Delta variant is highly contagious. @CDC guidelines and @AmerAcadPeds are clear. We need to protect our kids by mandating masking in schools at a statewide level.

Further, Gorbea said in a statement, “In failing to call for a mask mandate in our schools, Gov. McKee is putting our kids and educators at risk.”

Mike Trainor, a spokesperson for Gov. McKee’s reelection campaign, responded, saying: “While we understand Secretary Gorbea’s political need for relevance around this issue, the simple truth is that she does not have access to the national and local reservoir of data and medical/science resources that the McKee administration has had as it continues to monitor this particular issue.”

Trainor continued: “It is unfortunate that she is choosing to politicize an issue as important as this.”

In a letter to Gov. McKee, 34 members of the R.I. General Assembly urged him to issue an executive order making masks mandatory in schools. In asking the Governor to take action, the legislators said: “Any actions must be guided by experts in the field of public health and epidemiology and should not be delegated to municipal school departments.”

Dr. Annie De Groot, vaccinologist, the co-founder of EpiVax, tweeted on Aug. 11: #MaskUpRI here we go. #Delta R nought [R0] is between 5-8. That’s 5-8 cases per 1 case. Alpha [Wuhan] R0 was 2. Cases and hospitalizations are 2 fold higher. Personally, I recommended masking inside, and would not send children to school without masks. And #VaccinesWork.

Emotional health needs
In her prepared remarks, Dr. Alexander-Scott pointed repeatedly to the dedication of the team at the R.I. Department of Health, saying that they were continuing to give “110 percent” in their efforts to combat the pandemic.

In turn, ConvergenceRI asked about the emotional health needs of the front-line workers and the staff at the R.I. Department of Health, because of the frequent warning messages on Twitter about burnout because of the increased contagion from the Delta variant and the failure by many to become vaccinated or wear masks to protect themselves.

ConvergenceRI: You talked about how the Department of Health was working at 110 percent levels. I’ve heard from a number of sources that many on the front lines are approaching burnout. What kinds of state resources are available to support front-line health care workers and the people at the Department of Health to support their enormous efforts in combating the coronavirus pandemic?

In her response, Dr. Alexander-Scott praised the question but did not directly answer it.

ALEXANDER-SCOTT: That’s a great question. Particularly our colleagues at the Health Department, [they] are my heroes, with what they have done, and what they have sacrificed, for their families and others, and how they continue to move forward, in spite of being tired and exhausted, working extra hours or skipped vacations – whatever it has taken to make sure that Rhode Islanders are healthy and safe.

And, it continues to remain a top priority for us to learn what other resources there are. We are learning every day how this has impacted front-line workers across the board, and determining what types of tools there ca be in place to provide the emotional support, the needed encouragement, and the appreciation for what our staff have done and so many others [have done] throughout this response. It is atop priority, and it is one that we will continue to focus on for quite some time.

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