PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The next group of Rhode Islanders to receive COVID-19 vaccines will be based on age, underlying health conditions and geography – but not occupation.
The expanded eligibility, which could begin by mid-February after Phase 1, would start with all adults between the ages of 65 and 74 years old, before progressing by age group from old to young, state officials announced Thursday.
“The approach is much less complicated and it means vaccine will get administered much more quickly,” R.I. Department of Health director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said during a news conference Thursday.
Separately from the age groups under 65 years old, people would also be prioritized based on certain underlying health conditions, meaning an 18-year-old with diabetes would be offered a vaccine beginning at the same time as 60-to-65-year-old adults in the coming months.
As for age and geography, a 60-year-old living in the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence – where there’s been a high rate of infections and hospitalizations – will likely be offered the vaccine before a 50-year-old healthy adult living in South Kingstown, where the pandemic has hit less hard.
Notably absent from the Phase 2 prioritization criteria is any special consideration given to workers in certain essential jobs who cannot stay home during the pandemic. That will likely come as the biggest frustration to teachers, who had been under the impression that they were getting moved up the list.
Governor-in-waiting Dan McKee called a news conference last weekend to announce he wanted educators to be elevated, which was met with praise from teachers unions that have lobbied hard to get bumped up the list.
Since then, McKee has been more closely communicating with the R.I. Department of Health, and officials there appear to have convinced him that prioritizing based on age, underlying health conditions and geography is a better approach than picking one profession to go before another.
When asked if he was 100% on board with the state’s prioritization, especially considering teachers were not specifically moved up the list, McKee said he and Alexander-Scott were on the same page.
“The age, geography and conditions — the health conditions — it makes a great deal of sense,” McKees said, adding that he’s encouraged that a high percentage of teachers would be included under that approach. “That speaks to what I was saying — that teachers were important.”
Alexander-Scott highlighted that nearly 60% of teachers would end up being prioritized under the newly set guidelines, as would other essential frontline workers, such as grocery store employees.
Robert Walsh Jr., executive director of National Education Association Rhode Island, said the state’s communication on this issue has been frustrating and “left us with more questions than answers.” He also criticized the state for not following U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control guidelines, which considers occupation as part of its prioritization recommendations.
“To the extent that the recommendations we heard today don’t comply with the CDC recommendation that teachers and education support professionals be treated together as a critical group, and to the extent that not doing so makes Rhode Island an outlier, I think it is incumbent upon [the Health Department] to further explain how they came to those conclusions,” Walsh said in a statement.
He also said the union would continue to advocate for a policy shift after McKee takes over for Gov. Gina Raimondo, who is poised to join the Biden administration as U.S. commerce secretary next month.
“When lieutenant governor McKee is officially governor if we feel the need to advocate for a different approach after we understand why [the Health Department] came to this conclusion we will certainly do so,” Walsh added.
Rhode Island will prioritize based on five pre-existing conditions: renal disease, cardiac disease, lung disease, diabetes and people who are immunocompromised. Health officials said there’s significant crossover between these health conditions and others not listed, which means Rhode Islanders living with other higher-risk conditions will likely get prioritized even if their conditions are not specifically named.
As for geography, Rhode Island plans to distribute a greater proportion of what limited vaccine is available in future months to high-density communities where the coronavirus has hit hardest, including specific ZIP codes in Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence, North Providence and Cranston.
The state has already rolled out a pilot program in Central Falls, where roughly 20% of the city’s reported population has already received at least one dose of the vaccine. The state estimates the hospitalization rate has been consistently higher in those high-density communities than elsewhere across the state.
Rhode Island started vaccinating people beginning on Dec. 14, and has prioritized health care workers, nursing home residents, first responders and some high-risk inmates as part of Phase 1. Adults 75 years and older living at home are also part of that group, but vaccinations haven’t started for them yet.
Health officials said Thursday they still plan to begin inoculations for 75-and-older adults who live at home this weekend, saying they will be using various communication methods to notify qualified residents about how and when they can get a vaccine.
For example, the state plans to use municipal “special-needs registries” — which are typically used during storms when the power goes out and communities need to know where their most vulnerable residents live — to connect with adults 75 years and older who are at highest risk.
For people not listed in those registries, other methods – such as voter rolls, senior centers and elderly living complexes – will be used to identify and communicate with people about how to get a vaccine. Separately, there could be an online sign-up component – although health officials are wary about what has happened in other states – notably Massachusetts – where online registration platforms have struggled immediately after opening , leaving residents further frustrated and anxious about the process.
Vaccinations over the next couple months will likely happen in clinics, senior centers and at pharmacies. Health officials said Thursday CVS Health had told them the federal government could begin sending vaccines directly to the Woonsocket-based company beginning as early as next week, which would be in addition to the roughly 16,000 weekly doses the state expects to start getting regularly.
In addition to protecting the state’s most vulnerable residents first, health officials argue an age-based approach to prioritization makes some logistics easier, such as verification, which would be accomplishable with some type of ID – such as a driver’s license or passport. But health officials said they’re not naïve about people likely trying to jump the line, either by showing up and saying they don’t have identification, or faking an underlying conditions.
Nonetheless, state officials said they are hopeful most people will be honest about waiting their turns.
In addition to laying out Phase 2 prioritization, state leaders also announced Rhode Island would be lifting its nighttime curfew on businesses after Sunday, marking the end to a mandatory shut-down time of 10 p.m. on weekdays and 10:30 p.m. on weekend. Health officials claim it is now possible because Rhode Islanders have done a good job bringing down new infections and hospitalizations.
Alexander-Scott said Thursday she hoped the new rules would give business owners some “flexibility and relief,” but underscored that patrons still need to follow public health guidance, such as socially distances and remaining at tables.
“If you’re out late, don’t let your guard down, please,” she said. “Wear your mask and stay with your household. That has to continue.”
As of Thursday, the Health Department reported 618 new infections and a daily positivity rate of 3.3%, as another nine people in the state died after contracting the virus. About 335 COVID-19 patients are currently hospitalized in Rhode Island, with 47 in intensive care and 31 on ventilators, according to health officials.
This is a breaking news story and will be updated.