Here are the key takeaways from Thursday’s COVID-19 media briefing

  • RI looks to cut vaccine distribution time in half
  • More than 10K people signed up so far for mass-vaccination clinics
  • No governor appeared at news conference
  • Infections, hospitalizations fall sharply since New Year
  • Hospital, nursing home visitation restrictions loosened

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island leaders on Thursday committed to picking up the pace of vaccinations, claiming the state has mostly accomplished its more targeted approach that’s recently come under fire for moving too slowly.

R.I. Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott detailed how the state is shifting its overall strategy to become more efficient, pointing to two mass-vaccinations sites opening Thursday in Cranston and Providence, respectively, which will help jumpstart a process that will continue to pick up speed.

“We by and large have achieved what we needed to with Phase 1, and it’s time with our Phase 2 to get our vaccination shots administered more quickly,” Alexander-Scott said during the state’s weekly COVID-19 media briefing. “We can be confident that the most vulnerable are protected enough, and it’s time to get vaccines out to as many people as we can.”

Alexander-Scott said the state’s more targeted approach, which offered vaccines to the state’s hardest-hit communities and people most at-risk of contracting the virus, had taking about two weeks on average between the time a vaccine arrived in the state and the time it was administered into someone’s arm.

With the shift in strategy, which she said will eventually involve fewer regional clinics, along with a more centralized statewide sign-up process, the time would be cut in half to about one week, she said.

As of Thursday, the Health Department reported nearly 120,000 people had received at least one dose of the vaccine, while more than 54,000 people have been fully vaccinated with two shots. Put another way, roughly 5% of the state’s population has been fully vaccinated.

“We know it’s time to get faster,” Alexander-Scott said. “The way we do this is getting out of the redistribution business. We move from having that strategic, targeted approach with multiple vaccinators and partners, and consolidate and streamline to a smaller number of sites.”

The state’s first two mass vaccination sites have opened to adults 75 years and older, who can register for an appointment by visiting VaccinateRI.org, or calling (844) 930-1779.

Register for a COVID-19 vaccine appointment here »

Eligibility for the vaccine will be expanded on Monday to include the 65-and-older age group.

Health officials said more than 10,000 appointments were at the two sites since the state launched its new sign-up website Wednesday. Unlike Massachusetts, where the state’s website crashed after it expanded eligibility to roughly 1 million new people earlier this week, Rhode Island’s website has remained up and running, although there appear to be some issues.

Multiple reports have surfaced about people under the age of 75 years old having no problems signing up and receiving appointments, even though they are not eligible. Alexander-Scott said some people may have been confused by the state’s messaging Wednesday, when health officials announced adults 75 and older could sign up immediately, followed by adults 65 years and older beginning next week.

For now, Alexander-Scott said she’s giving people the benefit of the doubt, but she warned that health officials do have the ability to go in and cancel appointments if they are made erroneously or by people who are trying to jump the line. It appears for now there is no age verification system in place, meaning the state’s process is largely operating on the honor system.

“We do have the ability to correct that,” Alexander-Scott said.

The changes made to the state’s vaccine rollout could tamp down frustrations swirling around its more targeted approach so far that’s resulted in more than 80,000 unused doses and last-place rankings nationwide that have earned the state a failing grade from Harvard University.

The criticism comes at the same time Gov. Gina Raimondo and Lt. Gov. Dan McKee are butting heads publicly over leadership. Raimondo has dodged all public appearances since early January when President Biden picked her as his U.S. commerce secretary. She has yet to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, leaving a vacuum of leadership at the top of state government.

McKee, who is poised to take her place, meanwhile, has recently criticized the Raimondo administration for its vaccine rollout, while offering little in the way of specifics for what he might do differently.

Both governors refused to appear during the weekly news conference, leaving Alexander-Scott to answer questions about the public health crisis, along with politics. The doctor, who isn’t an elected official, downplayed the tension between Raimondo and McKee, but conceded it was “a unique situation.”

On public health, however, Alexander-Scott defended the state’s more targeted approach so far, pointing to overall COVID-19 data that’s improved drastically since the New Year.

Health officials reported a 1.8% daily positivity rate Thursday, with 320 new coronavirus infections found and roughly 18,000 tests administered the previous day. That’s the state’s lowest daily rate since Oct. 16.

Hospitalizations, meanwhile, declined to 180 people, with 32 patients in intensive care and 18 on ventilators, marking a vast improvement compared to some days in December when more than 500 people were in the hospital. New hospital admissions have dropped down to a daily average of 24 people compared to nearly 70 in December.

“These kind of results are not by chance,” Alexander-Scott said, claiming it’s directly attributable to the state’s “targeted, strategic decisions” made over the last two months.

When asked about deaths, which remain high while other health metrics have fallen, Alexander-Scott said that’s a lagging indicator and she expects to have a better handle on whether their approach is cutting down on mortality in the next few weeks. The Health Department on Thursday reported another 15 people have died after contracting COVID-19, and January was the third deadliest month during the pandemic. At least 120 people have died so far in February. Vaccinations started Dec. 14.

“We are anticipating that similar to cases decreasing and the hospitalizations decreasing that that will happen for fatalities as well,” Alexander-Scott said. “We need a couple extra weeks to determine that and then we can respond more accurately.”

In another shift in policy, Alexander-Scott announced the state is loosening restrictions on visitation to hospitals and nursing homes. Anyone who isn’t sick can visit people in hospitals after going through a screening process, which is less restrictive than previously when visitors were allowed only for specific reasons, such as end-of-life visitation.

Similarly, visitation will be allowed at nursing homes and assisted-living facilities beginning Friday if the facility hasn’t had any new COVID-19 cases within the past two weeks. Facilities with an outbreak of more than two people are expected to contact the Health Department to discuss visitation guidelines.

Alexander-Scott expressed her gratitude to everyone who followed the regulations up until this point, saying restricting visitations to these facilities was important to protect vulnerable Rhode Islanders and the overall health care system, but overall one of her toughest decisions to make during the pandemic.

“It was one of the most difficult, heartbreaking choices we have had to make in the last year,” she said. “We know this hasn’t been easy and we truly thank you.”