PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island will expand COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to adults 50 years and older beginning Monday, as health officials urged vigilance ahead of the holiday weekend when families and friends are expected to gather.
Gov. Dan McKee also announced 12,000 new vaccine appointments will be made available Friday evening, as the state’s rollout continues to ramp up at the same time daily infections are beginning to increase.
“Let’s stay disciplined,” McKee said about Passover, which started last weekend, and the upcoming Easter Sunday.
R.I. Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott urged people to limit social gatherings to two households indoors and three households outdoors. In general, the health director expressed optimism about where the state is heading amid the ongoing public health crisis. But she encouraged people to continue to err on the side of caution.
“We’re going in the right direction, but it’s important to know we have to remain vigilant,” Alexander-Scott said.
The health director also asked Rhode Islanders to attend religious services virtually, if willing and able, especially if people are older and still haven’t been vaccinated. When asked about his personal plans, McKee first said he plans to attend church in-person. But then he immediately backtracked, saying he planned to discuss the decision with his wife. They have both been vaccinated.
Rhode Island is currently on track to expand vaccine eligibility to adults 50 years and older beginning Monday. And while the next batch of appointments at the state-run mass-vaccination sites will not be released until Tuesday, the state’s COVID-19 response team executive director Tom McCarthy said people could begin looking for appointments online at pharmacies beginning at 12:01 a.m. Monday.
The state on Wednesday will also start using its vaccination pre-registration system, and alert eligible people — who have signed up — about appointments when they become available. People who are notified will be given a 24-hour window to make the appointment before the window closes and is offered to someone else. McCarthy said nearly 80,000 people had already pre-registered through the state’s website portal.ri.gov.
Additionally, McCarthy said there are new clinics opening up in East Providence, Johnston and Westerly next week, and appointments will be made available through the state’s vaccine sign-up portal.
The state’s vaccination effort has ramped up in recent weeks, as nearly 22% of Rhode Islanders have been fully vaccinated — which is one of the highest rates in the country. Health officials expect vaccine supply to continue to increase in the coming weeks, although there is some uncertainty about future allocations from Johnson & Johnson after a factory mix-up has caused delays.
However, health officials said they don’t expect the issue to affect the 16,000 J&J doses slated to arrive next week.
“Is is possible that this could affect our numbers in future weeks,” Alexander-Scott said, adding she would provide more updates as information became available.
While inoculation have grown in recent weeks, daily infections have also begun to rise again for the first time in months. Health officials, who said they are watching the trend closely, largely attribute the recent increase to the COVID-19 variant B117, which originated in the United Kingdom.
The Health Department on Thursday reported 383 new positive cases and a 2.1% daily positivity rate, with more than 18,000 tests administered the previous day. Another five people have died after contracting COVID-19, officials said, while hospitalizations totaled 131.
Alexander-Scott said B117 is likely to become the dominant strain in Rhode Island this month, adding infections last week grew in 24 of the state’s 39 cities and towns, including Middletown, Bristol, Smithfield, parts of Warwick, West Warwick, Providence and Cranston.
As Target 12 first reported earlier this week, infections have been growing most quickly among 10- to 14-year-olds, which McKee said is happening mostly “outside of structured school settings.” The governor also noted nearly 90% of teachers and school staff have been vaccinated in Rhode Island. There is no vaccine currently approved for people under 16 years old.
On the topic of education, McKee announced the required distance between students older than elementary school will be lowered to three feet instead of six feet — a rule that’s already in place in the lower grades. In addition, childcare will fully expand capacity to pre-pandemic levels beginning April 25. McKee also highlighted that there are grants still available for childcare centers, which can apply at kids.ri.gov.
Despite the recent increase of daily infections, Rhode Island leaders have no plans to slow down or pause the state’s reopening effort. McKee has indicated he is open to further relaxing business and social restrictions after the state reaches 70% vaccinated, which his administration estimates could happen within a couple months.
For Alexander-Scott, the pathway out of the pandemic is threefold: “testing, treatment and vaccinations.”