NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify that the two new mass vaccination sites are expected to open in mid-March.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Lt. Gov. Dan McKee and R.I. Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott hailed Rhode Island’s improving vaccination rates on Thursday, saying the state is making rapid progress and is preparing for a further increase in supply.
McKee led off the weekly coronavirus briefing for the first time, in a sign that Rhode Island is getting closer to the day when he is the state’s governor. The U.S. Senate is expected to confirm Gov. Gina Raimondo as President Biden’s commerce secretary early next week.
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Raimondo was not on hand for what is likely to be the final coronavirus briefing of her administration, but her aides posted a photo on social media just before it began showing her and McKee meeting in her State House office earlier in the day.
After initially lagging other states, Rhode Island has climbed in the rankings for per-capita vaccinations since switching last week to broad age-based eligibility. The state has administered about 225,000 doses since mid-December, and another 50,000 had been delivered as of early this week.
Alexander-Scott again pointed to data showing hospitalizations have fallen more quickly in Rhode Island than nationwide or in neighboring states, arguing that it vindicates the Raimondo administration’s initial targeted strategy that focused on high-risk groups such as health workers, congregate-care residents and the population of Central Falls.
“There is no doubt that our approach to vaccination is working,” she said, pointing out that the two temporarily field hospitals are being shut down as the number of patients declines.
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The state opened two mass-vaccination sites last Thursday, one in Providence and one in Cranston, and Alexander-Scott said roughly 300 people are getting a shot per hour at the two sites. More than 40,000 appointments have been made there through March 10, she said. She urged older Rhode Islanders to sign up, saying the R.I. National Guard has made both sites accessible.
Residents are asked to show up no earlier than 15 minutes before their appointments to avoid lines. (McKee, who is 69, said he and his wife have signed up for appointments to get vaccinated Tuesday.)
Two more mass-vaccination sites will open in the middle of next month, one at a former Benny’s in Middletown and another at a former Sears in Woonsocket. Shots can also be obtained through city- and town-run clinics, or at participating CVS and Walgreens pharmacies.
McKee had been critical of the Raimondo team’s vaccination strategy last week, pointedly skipping the briefing. Asked whether that had sent the wrong message, McKee said, “My time is valuable right now. We’re not only working through a health crisis, we’re working through a budget crisis.”
On Thursday, the lieutenant governor said Rhode Islanders “should be very encouraged,” and indicated he and Alexander-Scott are now in overall alignment. He reiterated his emphasis on involving municipal leaders in the rollout, and said he has been consulting with Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, who has won widespread praise for the speed of his state’s vaccination rollout.
“We’re headed in the right direction,” McKee said. “We’re building capacity right now.” He said he wants to come up with a plan to prioritize teachers for inoculations once he is in office in order to get more students back into classrooms.
The National Education Association Rhode Island teachers union quickly issued a statement thanking McKee, saying, “Our educators want to be back in school buildings, with our students — but we must do so safely, and the only way to do that is to fully implement the strategies identified by the CDC, including prioritizing educators for vaccination.”
With the FDA nearing approval of the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Alexander-Scott said Rhode Island expects to receive an initial allotment of roughly 9,000 doses if it gets the green light and could begin administering those within two weeks.
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On sports, R.I. Department of Environmental Management Director Janet Coit announced high schools will be allowed to resume “higher-risk outdoors sports,” notably football and lacrosse, with COVID-19 modifications in place. Attendance at youth sports games is still limited to family members, but interstate play will be allowed depending on current travel restrictions.
The Health Department on Thursday reported 387 new coronavirus infections and a 1.9% daily positivity rate, while hospitalizations fell to 163. The state’s death toll climbed to 2,496, with another 10 people dying after contracting COVID-19, according to health officials.
Alexander-Scott noted that Monday will mark one year since she announced Rhode Island’s first presumptive case of COVID-19. “Between then and now, we have had quite the journey,” she said. “Every single person in our state has been affected by this pandemic.”
“It’s been a living hell,” added McKee.