J&J vaccine cleared for use in Rhode Island; eligibility in limbo

Coronavirus

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee on Wednesday approved the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for use locally, although it remains unclear who will be eligible for the state’s initial shipment of 9,100 doses.

The subcommittee members, comprising mostly doctors and community health care workers, unanimously approved the single-dose vaccine for adults 18 years and older. It is the third vaccine to become available in Rhode Island, along with Pfizer and Moderna.

Under current state guidance, the doses would be made available to adults 65 years and older, based on Rhode Island’s current age-based eligibility schedule. But that could change shortly, as Gov. Dan McKee joined the meeting and reiterated his goal of bumping educators up the list.

“It’s a priority of the president’s and it’s a priority of mine,” McKee told the subcommittee members, who earlier this year decided against occupation-based prioritization.

President Biden on Tuesday urged states to prioritize teachers so schools can reopen, and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced Wednesday morning that all teachers and school personnel can start signing up for vaccinations on March 11.

“Right now, teachers should be a high priority,” McKee said.

McKee was speaking roughly 12 hours after he had been sworn into office following former Gov. Gina Raimondo’s confirmation as U.S. commerce secretary. He told the group he planned to meet with his administration later Wednesday to discuss how vaccinating teachers would happen. But it appears the J&J vaccines could be on the table.

Subcommittee member Pablo Rodriguez suggested as much during the meeting and there have been ongoing discussions behind the scenes between McKee and state health officials about using the doses specifically for educators.

“This could be a good option … if we’re looking for the schools to open up safer and better in the next few weeks,” Rodriguez said.

The J&J vaccine was granted an Emergency Use Authorization by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration on Saturday. Rhode Island expects to receive an initial shipment of 9,100 doses this week, but then the supply will stop for three weeks due to manufacturing constraints, according to state health officials.

It’s unclear how many doses Rhode Island will begin regularly receiving after three weeks, although health officials said it’s likely the amount will be reduced. Pfizer and Moderna doses are expected to continue to come in as usual, with a small increase in Pfizer doses expected.

CVS Health has already responded to Biden’s call, making teachers and early education providers eligible in Rhode Island and Massachusetts Wednesday morning, even though state officials hadn’t yet expanded eligibility. A CVS spokesperson said the pharmacy chain was following federal guidance.

During the meeting, some subcommittee members suggested the J&J vaccine be made available to other groups, such as hospital patients and short-term prisoners.

“We’re in the early phase of striking the balance, which is knowing that it is more valuable for certain populations because of the one-time piece,” said Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott Wednesday morning.

McKee’s appearance was the first time he’s met publicly with the subcommittee, which has been advising the state’s Health Department on its rollout strategy. His push to prioritize teachers marks a departure from the Raimondo administration’s age-based approach that had previously received the support of subcommittee members.

The new governor argues teachers need to be prioritized so Rhode Island can safely reopen schools, allowing students back into classroom and their parents back to work. But the move has been criticized publicly and privately as being an effort to placate teachers unions, which have been well-organized in their lobbying for prioritization.

12 News political analyst Joe Fleming said McKee’s move is “a combination of things.”

“One, it’s about getting the schools open, and two it’s politics,” he said. “Don’t forget, 2022 is less than two years away and he has to think about building up alliances. This is one way to get there.”

McKee has indicated he plans to run for governor in his own right in 2022. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and General Treasurer Seth Magaziner are all considering challenging him in the Democratic primary.

Union support could be key in helping McKee retain the governor’s office, and his relationship with teachers unions has been rocky in the past. The former lieutenant governor and Cumberland mayor is the state’s most prominent proponent of charter schools, and teachers unions have actively campaigned against him throughout his political career.

“He’s always had problems with the teachers unions in the past,” Fleming said, suggesting that giving them support now on vaccines could pay off politically in the future. And there are signs that could already be happening.

National Education Association Rhode Island executive director Bob Walsh applauded McKee for his push to prioritize teachers. Walsh argued it’s logical, aligns with federal guidance and follows what more than half of other states are doing already.

Politically, Walsh acknowledged unions have butted heads with McKee over mayoral academies in the past. But he argued the new governor’s positions on education don’t look much different from his predecessors, pointing to at least six proposals for new charter schools currently in the queue for approval that were created under the Raimondo administration. (Walsh is closely watching a bill recently passed by the state Senate that would put a moratorium on new charter schools.)

“As far as I’m concerned, we start this relationship fresh,” said Walsh, who has also served on McKee’s COVID-19 Advisory Group.

“We’re really starting yet again from scratch,” he added.

Absent from current conversations about vaccine prioritization in Rhode Island are other types of essential workers, such as grocery store employees, bus drivers and others in customer-facing jobs. Unlike educators, many of these workers are not organized and have been working throughout the pandemic — even as schools were closed or maintained the option to operate remotely.

Yet the heated debates over who should get the vaccine first could become moot within weeks if vaccine supply ramps up as quickly as expected. Biden announced Tuesday there should be enough vaccine doses available for all eligible adults by the end of May.

In Rhode Island, vaccine administration has more than doubled recently after the state opened up mass-vaccination sites in Providence and Cranston. The two sites have the ability to administer hundreds of vaccines per hour, meaning they’re well positioned for whenever supply increases. The state has announced additional locations are opening soon, as well.

In a presentation to the subcommittee, health officials said the quicker approach — which replaced a slower, more targeted strategy — led to a much larger proportion of adults 65 to 74 years old receiving a vaccine last week. The boost coincided with expanded eligibility, and a vast majority of the doses went to white Rhode Islanders compared to other racial and ethnic groups.

“We expect part of the increase in the Caucasian group was a combination of getting better data and a reflection of what is happening as we speed up … and who is able to actually access the vaccine,” Alexander-Scott said.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is an investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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

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