PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Dan McKee on Thursday announced all Rhode Islanders 16 years and older will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines by April 19, significantly advancing a timeline outlined earlier in the week.
The governor said the decision was made after the federal government shared information earlier this week that indicated the state would be receiving an increase in vaccine supply in the coming weeks.
President Biden has called for states to make all adults eligible by May 1, which state health officials said earlier this week wouldn’t be possible based on projected supply.
McKee said the state could now beat that deadline.
“If Rhode Island can get the vaccine supply we need, we can achieve and beat this goal,” he said during the state’s weekly coronavirus briefing. “We are confident the president will deliver.”
McKee’s announcement comes on the heels of similar pledges announced Wednesday by governors of other states, including Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker. McKee dismissed the suggestion that his decision to accelerate Rhode Island’s timeline had anything to do with politics.
“I don’t think it’s political pressure,” he said. “We’re going to keep the pressure on D.C. to get us the supply.”
While eligibility is slated to expand to the larger group of people on April 19, McKee stressed that not everyone would be able to make an appointment on that day.
State leaders have already learned about the challenges of expanding eligibility without having enough supply on hand to meet demand. Rhode Island last Friday opened about 1,600 new vaccine appointments at the same time it expanded eligibility by about 160,000 people, which caused widespread frustration across the state as residents scrambled to get signed up.
Since the newest group became eligible, the state has only been able to release roughly 4,900 appointments for the state-run mass vaccination sites. Friday, state health officials expect to open another 3,250 new slots on VaccinateRI.org around the usual time of 5 p.m.
McKee said he understood that demand outpaced supply, but he downplayed the frustration, calling it a “two-hour-type time frame.”
“I’ve talked to people who were frustrated who actually got appointments,” he said.
The state’s COVID-19 response team’s executive director, Thomas McCarthy, said the decision to expand eligibility last week was made in part because they wanted to maintain high demand that’s helped the state become a national leader in vaccine distribution. The New York Times ranks Rhode Island at No. 5 among states in terms of percent of population with at least one shot.
“This wasn’t something unexpected and we appreciate everybody’s patience,” McCarthy said about the sign-up process.
State leaders are hopeful Rhode Island will begin receiving an increased amount of the three vaccines currently available in the United States — Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Moderna — over the next few weeks.
The state this week received about 48,000 doses, an amount expected to grow to about 51,000 next week and continue to increase gradually moving forward, according to McCarthy.
McKee says he and Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott also sent a letter to Washington requesting an additional allocation of 50,000 vaccines per week for Rhode Island.
Another potential boost could come at the end of the month when health officials expect the state will start receiving at least 16,000 weekly doses of the J&J vaccine, which is a single-dose regimen that could help accelerate how many people get inoculated.
“All good news,” McCarthy said.
With supply now projected to pick up, Rhode Island is slated to open two new mass-vaccination sites by the end of the month, one in Woonsocket and one somewhere in South County. There are also plans underway to open three more sites, including potentially one in Westerly.
With the vaccine rollout continuing to move along, the McKee administration is also establishing guidelines for how the state can reopen more of the economy.
Beginning Friday, indoor dining is expected to expand to 75% capacity; catered events can have up to 100 people indoors and 200 people outdoors; retail shops, gyms and person services operations are allowed greater flexibility; and venues of assembly can have up to 250 people indoors and 500 outdoors.
Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor said the goal is to further expand capacity at venues of assembly — such as auditoriums, theaters, performing arts centers and formatted events where large numbers of people gather — to upward of 1,000 people during the summer.
The news sparked some excitement among Rhode Islanders eagerly looking for summertime events, such as the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals, to resume after last year’s cancellations. Pryor said state officials are currently collaborating with event planners on such events, adding they would “be able to announce plans in the future.”
Asked when he thought the state might be able to exit the state of emergency Rhode Island has been under for more than a year, McKee said the threshold is 70% of the state’s population vaccinated. The new governor, who took over from Gina Raimondo earlier this month, has repeatedly suggested that’s the goal for herd immunity for Rhode Island. (As of Thursday, only about 12% of the state’s population had been fully vaccinated.)
While much of the news conference focused on the vaccine rollout and economy reopening, Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott also warned that the state’s daily infection numbers are no longer falling.
“Our data appear to have plateaued,” Alexander-Scott said. “We were in a very sharp decline for several weeks. Our numbers are stable, but not decreasing as sharply as they were previously.”
Rhode Island on Thursday announced another 360 people tested positive for the coronavirus, roughly matching the daily average of infections for more than a month.
Overall COVID-19 hospitalizations continued to decline, totaling 125 people on Thursday. But like infections, new hospital admissions have plateaued recently.
The leveling-off comes at the same time health officials are warning about the spread of coronavirus variants, some of which have proven to be more contagious and potentially more deadly.
The state is sequencing a portion of its positive cases each week to screen for the variants, and so far has discovered 19 cases of he B.1.1.7 variant that has hit the United Kingdom especially hard. Another 16 cases of the B.1.429 variant out of California have been identified, along with six cases of the B.1.526 variant most prevalent in New York.
Alexander-Scott said she could appreciate that many people were experiencing “COVID fatigue” right now, but she argued that the new variants provide all the more reason to remain mindful that the virus is still spreading.
Handwashing, wearing masks, getting vaccinated and maintaining distance from others are still required.