McKee wants more state-run vaccine clinics, greater municipal involvement

Coronavirus
12 on 12: Vaccine 101

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Lt. Gov. Dan McKee announced Friday his vaccine strategy will not look much different from what the Raimondo administration is currently doing, saying he wants more mass-vaccinations sites as well as for municipalities to be ready when supply increases.

McKee, who’s poised to ascend to the state’s top job once Gov. Gina Raimondo is confirmed as U.S. commerce secretary, also said he wants to see cities and towns create a “9/11 moment” that rallies people together in opposition to a common enemy.

“COVID is the enemy and we’re going to beat the enemy,” he said during a Friday evening meeting of his Transition COVID-19 Advisors.

The meeting marked the first time McKee spoke publicly about his vaccine strategy since criticizing the Raimondo administration’s rollout earlier this week before skipping a regularly scheduled weekly COVID-19 news conference Thursday.

Despite his criticism earlier in the week, McKee offered little in the way of new ideas other than to suggest that cities and towns will be assisted to set up clinics once more vaccine supply becomes available, while also serving to “bring a community spirit to this situation.”

“The thinking is not much different than what you’re hearing now,” McKee said about his plans.

First, McKee said he wants to see more state-run vaccination sites, such as the two that opened this week in Providence and Cranston, respectively. The idea echoes the one presented Thursday by R.I. Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, who said the state will add mass-vaccination sites beyond the two that just opened.

The centralized approach, Alexander-Scott said, is the quickest way to get shots into people’s arms, which has been proven in states like Connecticut that adopted the strategy early and have been leaders in administering vaccines quickly. Rhode Island’s more targeted strategy through the first two months of inoculations, meanwhile, has come under fire recently for moving too slowly.

“My top priority is speeding up the vaccine distribution,” McKee said.

Second, McKee said he wants to get some cities and towns ready “to be on reserve” whenever more supply of the vaccine becomes available in the the future. It’s unclear how many municipalities might participate in such an effort, but McKee said his team is currently polling local leaders to gauge interest.

“We’re going to evaluate that,” he said.

The Health Department on Friday reported nearly 5.5% of the state’s population had been fully vaccinated since the state’s first inoculation on Dec. 14. The state is currently receiving about 16,000 first doses per week from the federal government, which is expected to increase nearly 40% beginning next week.

McKee, who served as Cumberland mayor for several years, is a staunch supporter of municipal government and has long said he wants local leaders to play a bigger role in the state’s vaccine rollout strategy. But he dismissed the idea that his support means he wants municipalities to play leading roles, underscoring that he still wants more state-run vaccination sites.

“We’re not talking about a vaccine site in all 39 cities and towns,” he said.

The lieutenant governor’s recent criticism of Raimondo’s strategy has put a question mark over how he plans to run the state’s COVID-19 response strategy after assuming power. And while he’s previously committed to keeping the state’s response team in place, McKee announced Friday his chief of staff Tony Silva will be leading the state’s vaccine rollout effort after he becomes governor.

“He is going to be my point person,” McKee said. “And rightfully so.”

Silva previously served as Cumberland police chief and head of the R.I. Division of Motor Vehicles. A longtime supporter and confidante of McKee’s, he will also serve as McKee’s chief of staff in the governor’s office, McKee confirmed Friday.

“He has the skill set to logistically put things into place,” McKee said.

After McKee made his remarks to the advisory committee, much of the discussion focused on how teachers should be vaccinated more quickly. McKee last month called a news conference to announce he wanted to prioritize educators getting the vaccine over other professions, but he was later convinced otherwise and the state has since continued with an age-based strategy.

Rhode Islanders 65 years and older will become eligible for the vaccine beginning Monday.

Nonetheless, at least three people on McKee’s advisory committee spoke out in favor of vaccinating teachers more quickly, as has happened in other states but so far has been opposed by the Raimondo administration. The outgoing governor has publicly clashed with teachers unions over school reopening throughout the pandemic.

“It’s been phenomenally demoralizing,” National Education Association Rhode Island executive director Bob Walsh told McKee’s advisory group, saying the state hasn’t followed other parts of the country, along with federal guidance, when it comes to prioritizing teachers for the vaccine.

Walsh said it would send a great message to community members who might be on the fence about getting a vaccine if students were returning from school, saying, “My teacher got vaccinated, I guess it’s safe.”

Up until this point, the state has moved away from an occupation-based approach, and health officials have argued that 60% of educators are covered first under the age-based approach. As part of Raimondo’s initial rollout, health care workers, nursing home residents, first responders and some high-risk inmates, along with adults 75 years and older were prioritized first.

The state also targeted neighborhoods that have been hit hardest with infections and hospitalizations, such as Central Falls, where 20% of the city’s roughly 20,000 residents have received at least one dose of vaccine. And while the state has shifted its resources to mass-vaccination efforts, health officials have pledged to continue some of the targeted approach.

The cities of Providence and Pawtucket will get extra doses next week on top of the weekly per-capita allocation for each municipality, Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said Friday.

Providence — which currently receives 1,190 doses a week — will receive 980 extra doses for the 02909, 02908, and 02907 ZIP codes. Pawtucket will get an additional 550 doses on top of its usual weekly allocation of 480 doses.

McKee has not committed to sticking with Raimondo’s prioritization strategy after taking over, although he’s publicly expressed support for it in the past. And while he’s been critical of Raimondo, he also stressed that he doesn’t want anybody to think the work of his advisory committee is “stepping on anybody’s toes.”

“This transition is a one-of-a-kind transition with all of the issues going on,” McKee said. “I just want to make that clear.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Steph Machado contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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