Proms, graduations will happen in RI as vaccinations ramp up; Alexander-Scott still sees ‘a lot of disease’

Coronavirus

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Dan McKee said Thursday that Rhode Island high schools will be able to hold proms and graduation ceremonies this spring as more individuals get vaccinated against COVID-19, even as officials cautioned residents to stay vigilant against the new variants.

“We’re making great progress,” McKee said at state leaders’ weekly coronavirus briefing, held at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence.

R.I. Department of Health data released Thursday shows nearly 400,000 Rhode Islanders are at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19, with about 275,000 of those individuals fully vaccinated. Both are among the highest vaccination rates in the country.

Roughly 20,000 additional vaccine appointments will go live on Friday at 5 p.m. at VaccinateRI.org.

Statewide eligibility for vaccine appointments will expand Monday to allow all residents ages 40 to 49 to sign up. A week later, starting on April 19, all Rhode Islanders ages 16 and older will be eligible. Individuals can preregister to be notified when an appointment is available for them at portal.ri.gov.

The state has already expanded age-based eligibility in so-called “tier one” ZIP codes that have been hit hardest by the pandemic, made up of high-density parts of Providence, Cranston, North Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls. McKee expressed concern about lagging vaccination rates in communities of color, and said additional ZIP codes will be given expanded eligibility.

Tom McCarthy, who leads the state’s COVID-19 response team, confirmed that inaccurate cancellation notices were accidentally sent to roughly 1,400 people in hard-hit communities who had signed up for appointments, confirming a Public’s Radio report, but suggested the issue has been resolved.

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McKee and Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott gave an upbeat assessment of the state’s trajectory and what that will mean for expanded reopening, including parades and fireworks on the Fourth of July.

They said they expect 70% of Rhode Islanders ages 16 and up will be partially vaccinated by May 15 — which Alexander-Scott described as a “milestone” — and 70% will be fully vaccinated by June 17.

The state is authorizing non-catered events, such as concerts and commencements, to welcome up to 250 people indoors or up to 500 outdoors through May 15. After that, the capacity limits will increase to up to 500 indoors or up to 1,000 outdoors. Masks and social distancing will still be required, and attendees are urged to get tested 48 hours out.

The organizers of some large events will need to submit plans to the state.

Updated guidance for catered events is supposed to be posted on ReopeningRI.com on Friday. Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor said in light of the health situation, the threshold where testing is required for catered events will be raised to guest counts of 50 or more.

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At the same time, Alexander-Scott cautioned there is still “a lot of disease” in Rhode Island, as the demographics of COVID-19 patients shift to younger age groups who have not yet been vaccinated. Over the last week the state has averaged 364 new cases and 24 new patients admitted to the hospital each day, according to a WPRI.com analysis of Health Department data.

Alexander-Scott said the new coronavirus variants circulating in Rhode Island “spread more aggressively” than earlier forms of the virus. “That is balancing against the fact we are doing as strong a job as we are with vaccinations,” she said.

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Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said the social distancing rules for schools will be reduced from 6 feet to 3 feet on April 26, in line with revised CDC guidance, which she said will allow more students to resume in-person learning.

As for proms, students will be allowed to dance, but only with members of their “pod” — generally, the other students sitting at their individual tables. (Pryor described it as “pod dancing.”) They will also need to wear masks.

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