PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Lt. Gov. Dan McKee on Monday offered sharp criticism of the state’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, saying Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration isn’t moving quickly enough as tens of thousands of doses remain unused.
McKee — who is poised to take over the state’s top job when Raimondo leaves to become U.S. commerce secretary — expressed frustration with a strategy that had already been coming under criticism for moving too slowly. Raimondo has mostly disappeared from the public eye as she awaits Senate confirmation, while insisting she continues to be engaged in her duties as governor.
“Like most Rhode Islanders, I am not satisfied with the current administration’s progress on vaccine distribution, especially as we see our neighbors in Connecticut ranked among the top in the nation,” McKee, a Democrat, said in a statement.
“Rhode Island has much more work to do to get shots in arms quickly and efficiently,” he added.
At last check Rhode Island ranked last in the nation among all 50 states for the share of the population that had been vaccinated. Roughly 80,000 doses sent to the state by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had not been administered as of Monday morning.
Joseph Wendelken, a spokesperson for the Health Department, attributed Rhode Island’s slow rollout compared with other states to its “very targeted, strategic approach in the first portion of our vaccination campaign.” He said the priority has been vaccinating residents of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, as well as health care workers.
“This targeted approach takes more time than mass-vaccinating in public clinics,” Wendelken said in an email. “For that reason, other states currently have higher administration rates than Rhode Island. However, because of the approach we’ve taken, we have seen precipitous drops in cases among healthcare workers and cases in our nursing homes.”
He added, “That said, we are doing everything we can to get shots in arms to our most vulnerable populations as quickly as possible. Later this week we will open two mass vaccination sites for Rhode Islanders for age-based vaccinating. Vaccinating in this way is faster and less operationally complex. When these sites are open, we fully expect that our administration rate will rapidly improve.”
Of the 80,000 unused doses reported by the CDC, Wendelken said some of those were either in transit or had just arrived in Rhode Island Monday afternoon.
Of the 205,950 the state had received through last week, he said 52,200 had gone to the pharmacies that are still conducting clinics for congregate living facilities, such as nursing homes. Another 120,627 doses went to other vaccination partners, such as hospitals and retail pharmacies, and many are second dose shots that haven’t yet been administered. It wasn’t immediately clear what percentage of the unused doses represented second doses.
“Most of the first doses that have not been distributed to a vaccinator yet will be used at the two mass vaccination sites that will be opening this week,” Wendelken said.
(The CDC’s own data was criticized Monday by the National Governors Association, whose leaders sent a letter to President Biden that said in part, “The CDC reporting mechanism has created unnecessary confusion. We would ask that the CDC reporting accurately reflects the reality.”)
McKee’s criticism illustrates a growing rift between the incoming and outgoing governors, who for weeks have expressed solidarity about the transition even while privately butting heads. He has committed to keeping the same leadership in place overseeing Rhode Island’s coronavirus response.
Without offering specifics, McKee on Monday alluded to some frustration over not receiving complete information from the Health Department about the effort so far.
“Speeding up vaccine distribution is my top priority,” he said. “When I become governor, I want to have all the information to be able to hit the ground running on day one.”
McKee said he plans to reach out this week to Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont — whose state has far outpaced Rhode Island and Massachusetts in its pace of vaccinations — as well as experts at Harvard University, which last week gave Rhode Island a grade of “F” for its vaccine rollout.
As of Monday, Rhode Island had administered 148,335 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to 101,461 people; however, the CDC says it has sent the state about 228,000 doses.
Among those who have received a shot, 46,874 Rhode Islanders had been fully vaccinated by receiving two doses as of Monday, representing about 4% of the state’s population.
McKee is not the only Rhode Island leader expressing concern about Raimondo’s strategy.
General Treasurer Seth Magaziner — a Democrat who is expected to challenge McKee in next year’s gubernatorial primary, and who has usually been an ally of Raimondo — took to Facebook last week to urge her administration to undertake “a reset.”
“The problem is not with vaccine prioritization,” Magaziner wrote. “The problem is the distribution system itself, which has been slow and which many Rhode Islanders find opaque and confusing to navigate.”
Another likely 2022 gubernatorial candidate, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, was also critical during last week’s taping of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers.
“I think it’s been really challenging,” Gorbea said of the vaccine rollout nationwide. “There’s no way to deny that. I think if you ask everybody involved, they wish it had gone better. The challenge now is improving, really quickly.”
Asked specifically about the rollout at the state level, Gorbea said, “I think that there has been a challenge in communicating to people what exactly is the availability and how can they sign up. I think there’s been a lot of confusion — and I know, because I’ve had older people ask me. … That kind of confusion at this time is very, very challenging.”
McKee has formed his own 20-member COVID-19 advisory group, which met last week, and has indicated he wants to collaborate more closely with municipal leaders once he takes office.
“Throughout this transition, my message to the public has been stay positive and test negative,” McKee said Monday. “As governor, my message to everyone involved in the state’s vaccine distribution effort will be equally as simple: Let’s get shots in arms right now.”
Unlike many others states in the country, the governor and lieutenant governor in Rhode Island do not run on the same ticket, and Raimondo and McKee’s relationship has always been frosty — even more so during the pandemic.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram