CUMBERLAND, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island governor-in-waiting Dan McKee is publicly disagreeing with the Raimondo administration’s vaccine rollout strategy, saying Saturday that teachers need to be prioritized over others.
The Democratic lieutenant governor — who is slated to ascend to the state’s top office once Gov. Gina Raimondo is confirmed as U.S. commerce secretary — met with reporters outside his Cumberland home to express displeasure with the current prioritization plan.
“We need to really move up on the list teachers and the support staff in schools,” McKee said. “We’re not going to open the economy until we do that, and teachers are not going to feel comfortable by and large until we get them vaccinated.”
The rebuke comes one day after the R.I. COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee met to discuss who should get the vaccine next. The panel of mostly doctors largely backed a proposal to prioritize Phase 2 vaccine recipients based on age, underlying health conditions and where they live.
Notably absent from consideration was any prioritization based on occupation, dealing a blow to interest groups such as teachers unions that have lobbied hard to be next in line. During the subcommittee meeting, which was held remotely over Zoom, teachers decried the decision not to be prioritized.
“You are all on a zoom call discussing this in your offices, and teachers are going into classrooms with poor ventilation and basic cloth masks (and NO SOCIAL DISTANCING IN MOST ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS),” a teacher with the username Jessica Mathias wrote via the virtual meeting’s chat function.
The frustration among teachers — who are better organized than other members of the state’s essential workforce, such as grocery store and factory workers — has apparently caught the attention of McKee, who said he would be adding a teachers union member to his transition team.
“We expect to have someone from the teachers union on our team because we think that’s the most important thing,” McKee said, adding that the person would be named in the coming days.
Asked about McKee’s comments Saturday, Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said the state is still reviewing feedback from the subcommittee.
“We don’t have anything else to share at this point, but will certainly let everyone know when we have our approach to the next phase finalized,” he said.
President Joe Biden has encouraged states to prioritize vaccinating people 65 years and older, along with grocery store workers and teachers, but he hasn’t released any specific guidance yet. The Trump administration last month updated federal guidance, recommending adults 75 years and older, along with all “frontline essential workers” outside of health care, should get vaccinated after health care workers and nursing home residents.
Frontline essential workers would include anyone “who perform duties across critical infrastructure sectors and maintain the services and functions that U.S. residents depend on daily,” including first responders, correctional officers, grocery store workers, food and agriculture workers, factory workers and “those who work in the education sector,” including child care workers, according to the Dec. 20 guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
McKee said Saturday, “The more we can conform to the national level, the more successful we’re going to be to keeping people safe in Rhode Island.”
Currently, Rhode Island is vaccinating frontline health care workers, nursing home residents, first responders and high-risk inmates, along with adults 75 years and older — a process that’s likely to extend until March or April. But the state has so far decided against prioritizing based on occupation.
Prioritizing educators would inevitably delay vaccinations for all non-educators, and McKee did not name any other group Saturday that he thought should be prioritized. When asked specifically about adults 65 years and older, McKee said he expected they would also be prioritized, but underscored the state is only receiving a limited amount of supply of the vaccine from the federal government.
“I think it’s a supply issue, but that age group is a priority,” he said. “We’re going to follow the lead of the Biden administration.”
Rhode Island currently is receiving about 14,000 first doses each week, meaning at best it could inoculate about 2,000 new people per day. Since Jan. 5, the state and its vaccination partners — mostly hospitals — have administered an average of about 1,600 first doses per day, according to an analysis by Target 12.
Health officials estimate the education sector totals 36,550 workers, meaning if the state stopped vaccinating everyone else, it would take about 22 days to vaccinate that group at the current pace.
Given the supply problem, the state’s COVID-19 response team has been wary about prioritizing based on occupation, saying state-based data shows an approach focused on age, underlying health conditions and geography will ultimately save the most lives.
Rhode Islanders 60 years and older make up more than 90% of the state’s over 2,000 coronavirus deaths, and some communities – such as Central Falls, Pawtucket and Providence – have been hit disproportionately hard with infections and hospitalizations.
On Friday, R.I. Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said that prioritizing by age, underlying health conditions and geography would allow vaccines to go first to the most vulnerable employees across every industry – including teachers.
“When you look at just high-risk condition alone and age, we cover almost 50% of teachers using that categorization,” Alexander-Scott said during the subcommittee meeting.
“When you add geography, which was brought up and has been something that we are considering, it puts us at over 50%,” she added.
Since learning he would become governor earlier this month, McKee has largely conducted his business behind the scenes, meeting with various department heads and the state’s pandemic response team privately, while releasing snippets of information about his transition effort, including a list of transition officials that came out Saturday afternoon.
Raimondo, meanwhile, has been under an apparent gag order from the Biden administration, refusing to answer questions from reporters for a month despite saying she will continue leading the state until her confirmation. That has evoked sharp criticism from First Amendment advocates and news organizations, while creating a vacuum of leadership that’s caused confusion over who is really calling the shots amid the pandemic.
The issue appears to be coming to a head now, as Raimondo’s team has proposed going in one direction with vaccine prioritization, while McKee is looking to move in another, although he has also pledged to keep her coronavirus leadership team in place.
That said, McKee has previously indicated he believed teachers should be prioritized.
“In order for us to get the economy back, we have to get the schools back, so that means that we certainly have to raise the priority level for teachers and school personnel,” he said Jan. 14, during his first news conference after Biden picked Raimondo as his commerce secretary.
On Friday, McKee also said he supported prioritizing vaccinations for state elected officials, adding that they should be a “second-tier priority,” although he didn’t bring it up at his home Saturday./
“How you going to be able to do the work that needs to be done unless your elected officials are actually in a spot where they can conduct their affairs?” McKee told The Public’s Radio.
General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, who is expected to challenge McKee in next year’s Democratic primary for governor, quickly issued his own statement saying he disagreed with prioritizing general officers ahead of others. Raimondo received her first shot earlier this week as part of a push to inoculate cabinet nominees, and members of Congress have also been vaccinated.
Despite the disagreement, McKee on Saturday said the transition has been going well and he reiterated that he still plans to keep Raimondo’s COVID-19 response team in place. But he is also looking to draw in his own advisers, including Brown University’s dean of public health Dr. Ashish Jha, who has become nationally renowned during the pandemic and was named Saturday as a senior adviser to McKee’s transition team.
“There’s always ways to improve,” McKee said, saying he also wants more hospitals to get involved in vaccines, along with more municipal leaders. His office said Saturday he recently spoke with the CEO of CharterCare, the parent company of Roger Williams Medical Center and Fatima Hospital, about getting its facilities more involved in vaccinations.
“I’m going to be governor very shortly,” McKee said.