The recent rise in COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island prompted the state’s largest hospital group and a physicians organization this week to call for a mandatory indoor mask mandate, a measure that Governor Daniel J. McKee has so far expressed reluctance to impose.

Lifespan, which operates five hospitals including Rhode Island Hospital, the state’s only level one trauma center for Southeastern New England, and the Rhode Island Medical Society, say an indoor mask mandate is needed to curb the spread of the coronavirus and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.

During the last 30 days, the seven-day average number of positive COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island has increased more than 200%, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of Dec. 8, Rhode Island reported an average of 1,087 new COVID-19 cases during the previous seven days, compared with 198 new cases as of Nov. 7, the CDC data shows.

“We know that masking works,’’ Dr. Dean Roye, chief medical officer at Rhode Island Hospital, which is operated by Lifespan, told reporters during a conference call Thursday. “This is one of those interventions that is relatively low tech, but it's clear that it does decrease the transmission.”

The number of Rhode Islanders hospitalized for COVID-19 has roughly doubled during the past month, but it’s nowhere near the levels it was last winter: roughly 200 hospitalizations this week compared with about 500 this time last year. Rhode Island’s high vaccination rate -- about 75% for all residents, and  86% for adults -- has dramatically reduced hospitalizations for COVID-19. But after 21 months of the pandemic, exhaustion and waves of retirements have thinned the ranks of nursing staff nationwide, leaving hospitals in Rhode Island as in other parts of the country severely short-staffed. Even when hospitals have enough beds for patients, staffing shortages are causing delays in admitting them, meaning longer wait times in emergency rooms.

“Patients are backing up into the emergency department,’’ Dr. Jeremiah Schuur, physician-in-chief of emergency medicine for Lifespan, said during the briefing Thursday. “And with our crowded conditions it’s then hard to do the infection prevention measures we’ve been working so hard on for the last two years.’’

The staffing shortage has led Lifespan to occasionally postpone non-critical surgeries or procedures, Roye, Rhode Island Hospital's chief medical officer, said. “It’s the combination of decreased availability of critical care nursing,” he said, “and the current surge (in COVID-19 cases) that we’re in the middle of that has led to a very difficult situation for critical care.”

Lifespan “fully supports a mandatory indoor mask mandate to stem the spread of Covid-19,’’ Jane Bruno, a Lifespan spokeswoman, said in an email.  In addition to Rhode Island Hospital, Lifespan also operates Hasbro Children’s Hospital and The Miriam, Newport and Bradley Hospitals.

Landmark Medical Center, in Woonsocket, operated by Prime Healthcare Services, also supports a state mask mandate to curb COVID cases, Carolyn Kyle, a hospital spokeswoman said in an email.

Doctors and state health officials say that getting more people vaccinated, especially children, is key to curbing the spread of the virus in the wake of the Delta and Omicron mutations, as well as keeping people out of the hospital. The COVID-19 case rate among children ages 5 to 9 in the state nearly “doubled” between Halloween and Thanksgiving, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said during a Dec. 1 briefing. Among children ages 10 to 14, she said, the number of positive cases during the same period “tripled.”

State health officials announced plans this week to open 100 community based COVID-19 vaccination clinics in schools, churches and community centers during the next month. The community clinics will replace the state-run mass vaccination sites, the last of which at 100 Sockanosset Cross Rd., Cranston is scheduled to close Dec. 18. 

McKee’s office released a Twitter video Wednesday evening in which the governor urged people who had not received their COVID-19 vaccinations or boosters  to do so if they were eligible. And McKee asked residents to “strongly consider wearing a mask” when at the grocery store or the mall. “I want to be clear,’’ he said in the video, “all options remain on the table in terms of mitigation strategies including reinstating an indoor mask mandate.”

But so far, McKee has said he is not ready to mandate indoor masking.

Steven R. DeToy, a spokesman for the Rhode Island Medical Society, said the time to mandate indoor masking is now.  “What’s keeping the transmission high is because a lot of us took our masks off” after being vaccinated and receiving booster doses,  DeToy said in an interview. DeToy said state health officials presented survey data to its members showing that indoor masking has fallen from about 65% to below 30% percent. It’s clear from last year’s experience, he said, that “indoor mask wearing, and having a mandate to do so, is one of the most effective things to do to stem the virus.”

Masks “help prevent serious COVID-19 illness and help prevent transmission” of the viru, Joseph Wendelken, a spokesman for the state Department of Health, said in an email. But he did not say whether Alexander-Scott, the state’s health director, supports an indoor mask mandate, referring questions on the matter to the governor’s office. 

Lynn Arditi, health reporter for The Public’s Radio, can be reached at larditi@thepublicsradio.org. Follow her on Twitter @LynnArditi.