PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. Department of Health is set to announce plans to vaccinate some adults over 75 who live at home as soon as this weekend, Target 12 has learned, marking the first time older Rhode Islanders outside of long-term care facilities will be able to get inoculated against COVID-19.
Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken confirmed the plans Wednesday night after multiple municipal leaders said they had been notified earlier in the day they would be allotted some doses for their oldest residents.
Cranston’s director of administration, Tony Moretti, said the Health Department notified Cranston leaders that the city will receive “very limited” doses next week to distribute to residents older than 75. The city is developing plans to notify and sign up eligible residents, Moretti said.
East Providence Mayor Bob DaSilva also said his city was notified they would begin to receive a small number of doses for adults over 75 in the coming days.
“We’re ready to jump into action,” DaSilva said Wednesday night.
In North Providence, Mayor Charlie Lombardi said he was told his town would soon receive “roughly 300” doses for residents older than 75.
Ben Smith, a spokesperson for the city of Providence, said the city was told it would get 850 doses for this initial round, to be administered this weekend. Since the quantity is so small, Smith said community health partners would be contacting their patients at highest risk to register them for the slots, rather than having people sign up online.
Warwick Mayor Frank Picozzi is holding a news conference this afternoon to discuss the rollout in that city, where 400 initial doses are expected for the for the first round of vaccinations for those 75 and older.
Wendelken confirmed municipalities will be allotted doses for people over 75, to be administered through five existing regional vaccine clinics in Smithfield, Bristol, Providence, East Greenwich and Narragansett.
“This is just the start for people 75 and older,” Wendelken said in an email, adding that priority will be given to people on the Rhode Island Special Needs Emergency Registry.
More details about the state’s upcoming vaccine distribution plans are set to be announced at a news conference at 1 p.m. Thursday.
Up until now, Rhode Island has been vaccinating high-risk groups such as first responders, nursing home residents and health care workers, but has not offered doses to the general public at large, with one exception: residents of Central Falls.
The one-square-mile, densely populated city in the Blackstone Valley is the hardest-hit municipality in the state and the only one that has been green-lighted to vaccinate the general public, with all adults eligible to sign up for vaccine clinics being held throughout the city.
The special strategy has led to nearly 20% of the city’s population getting vaccinated so far.
The Department of Health has allocated 4,490 doses of vaccine to the city, with 3,629 administered as of last week, according to Wendelken. Another vaccine clinic is slated for this weekend at Central Falls High School, and requires pre-registration.
“We want to get the disease stopped in Central Falls,” said Dr. Michael Fine, the city’s chief health strategist. “We’re pretty sure it’s one of the most infected places in the nation, and we actually think it might be one of the most infected places in the world.”
Fine said Central Falls started by offering the vaccine to the elderly and disabled, before branching out to teachers, and finally expanding eligibility to all adult residents. The city hired 15 health ambassadors who do outreach to residents to let them know about the clinics, and provide information in an effort to combat vaccine hesitancy.
Fine himself got a dose of the vaccine while at a housing authority building, a move that he said prompted dozens of hesitant people to get the shot. (He said he plans to hold off on getting the second dose until the vaccine is more widely available.)
In addition to vaccinating at public housing complexes, inoculations have been available at Blackstone Valley Community Health Center and at various sites such as the Knights of Columbus. A local pharmacist and a pediatrician are among those helping run the clinics.
But the availability of vaccine doses in Central Falls has prompted some grumbling from those in other municipalities — especially older residents — who hoped to have access to the vaccine by now.
Other cities are working on plans to vaccinate their residents once vaccines doses become more widely available.
In Providence, the Emergency Management Agency has been gearing up for a massive vaccination effort. The agency’s director, Clara Decerbo, said the city is currently looking at potential sites for drive-throughs such as Roger Williams Park, where people could sign up to get vaccinated through the open windows of their cars. (Patients would then pull over into a parking lot for a brief period to wait in case of any adverse reactions before driving away.)
While the drive-through site would allow for vaccinations at a large scale, it would need to be paired with indoor sites in neighborhoods that are accessible by foot and bus, in order to serve the large number of residents who don’t have cars. Decerbo said existing health centers are a good option, along with larger facilities such as school gyms.
“Ideally what I would like to see is a combination,” Decerbo told 12 News on Wednesday. “To really be able to provide an easily accessible vaccination option for as much as our population as possible.”
PEMA posted a job opening earlier this month for qualified vaccinators, paying $25 to $30 per hour, which Decerbo said will be used to create a running list of vaccinators who can be called upon when more doses become available.
Decerbo said PEMA is ready to put the plans in place as soon as the state allocates doses to the capital city.
“I have equipment in our garage — we have a warehouse full of supplies,” Decerbo said. “We’ll be ready as soon as we get the call.”
Providence is second to Central Falls in terms of per capita COVID-19 cases throughout the entire pandemic, and has a similar hospitalization rate, with 1,068 per 100,000 residents in Central Falls and 1,010 per 100,000 in Providence, according to Department of Health data.
Certain areas of Providence have also been harder hit than others: the 02909 zip code, which includes Olneyville, Silver Lake and parts of Federal Hill and Mount Pleasant, has had nearly as many cases per capita as Central Falls.
When mentioning the Central Falls vaccinations at weekly coronavirus briefings, Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott has frequently mentioned Providence and Pawtucket as communities that could also receive prioritization.
Pawtucket officials are speaking to the Health Department multiple times a week, spokesperson Wilder Arboleda said Wednesday, and the city is anticipating using the existing BEAT COVID-19 hotline to help residents sign up for vaccinations when they become available. The city is currently assessing potential vaccination sites.
“The mayor’s administration has continued to advocate for community clinics,” Arboleda said. “Like testing, we need our residents to have easy access to the vaccines within our city.”
Kim Kalunian contributed to this report.