Raimondo argues RI vaccine rollout is on track; no timeline yet for her departure to Washington

Politics
12 on 12: Vaccine 101

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Gina Raimondo on Monday defended her administration’s vaccine rollout strategy, arguing the initial targeted approach is now accelerating and has already paid dividends by reducing infections and hospitalizations.

In a conference call with reporters, Raimondo pushed back on the idea that the ramp-up in vaccinations was spurred by recent criticism from her soon-to-be successor Lt. Gov. Dan McKee, Harvard University or because the state ranked last on a New York Times vaccination tracker.

“Our initial strategy was to be very targeted, to focus on the most vulnerable populations trying to bring down our hospitalizations — by the way, that worked,” Raimondo said, pointing to a recent decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations. “Now, the next phase is broader — immunizing faster — and even in the past few days we’ve jumped up 17 spots on the New York Times list.”

The conference call represented a departure from the governor’s otherwise low profile since early January, when President Biden picked her to become U.S. commerce secretary. Since being nominated, Raimondo has mostly dodged reporters’ questions and avoided public appearances.

The U.S. Senate has yet to schedule a vote on the second-term Democrat’s cabinet nomination, which faces opposition from Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Monday afternoon he will call votes this week on multiple cabinet nominees, but Raimondo was not among them, making a vote next week or later appear more likely.

Still, Raimondo is expected to easily win approval whenever the Democratic-controlled Senate finally does hold a vote on her appointment. She told reporters Monday she herself remains unsure about the timing, noting the recent impeachment trial followed by a one-week Senate recess had slowed business on Capitol Hill.

“It took a bit longer than we might have initially thought,” Raimondo said. “I will keep you posted as I learn more, and in the meantime I’m just here supporting Lt. Gov. McKee in his transition.”

The transition process has been bumpy, as McKee and Raimondo have butted heads at times over leadership and communication. The pair have never been close.

Last week, McKee broke with the Raimondo administration’s vaccine strategy, saying she and her health advisers hadn’t been moving quickly enough. At the time, more than 80,000 doses of the vaccine which had been delivered to the state had yet to be used.

“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 said last week in a statement.

The criticism came after Harvard University issued a report card giving Rhode Island an “F” for the rollout, with the state ranked last nationwide in terms of administering doses quickly.

Shots have started going into arms more quickly since then, with nearly 10,000 Rhode Islanders getting a dose at the state’s two mass-vaccination clinics during their first three days of operation. The two facilities, one in Providence and one in Cranston, opened to adults 75 years and older last Thursday, and appointments for Rhode Islanders 65 years and up became available Monday.

Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows Rhode Island now ranks 25th out of the 50 states for vaccinations per capita, up from last place roughly a week ago. Connecticut ranks in the top 10, and Massachusetts ranks in the top 20.

Raimondo on Monday continued to defend the initial strategy that targeted people at the highest risk of contracting the virus, becoming hospitalized or dying. That included offering doses to all adults in Central Falls, where the pandemic has hit hardest.

Raimondo pointed to the state’s test positivity rate — which has fallen below 2% in recent days — along with sharp decreases in infections among health care workers and nursing home residents as evidence that the targeted strategy has been effective. It wasn’t immediately clear how much of that decline was directly tied to vaccines.

Infections, hospitalizations and deaths have trended downward in recent weeks, after December and January were the second and third most deadly months during the pandemic, respectively. New data shows 2020 was the deadliest year in Rhode Island since the flu pandemic of 1918.

Health officials have pointed to a 47% decline in hospital admissions over the past month, claiming this is the result of the state’s strategic, targeted vaccination campaign.

“I know everyone’s focused on vaccinations at the moment — with very good reason — but I do think though it’s important that we keep our eye on the overall state of the coronavirus pandemic in Rhode Island,” Raimondo said. “The overall picture, as it relates to us, is that we’re in a good and stable place.”

While McKee has been critical of Raimondo, he’s offered little in the way of specifics regarding what he might change about the current vaccine strategy once he takes office. On Friday, he said he wants to see more mass-vaccination clinics — which is also part of the Raimondo plan — and greater involvement from municipalities, especially when the supply of doses increases.

McKee also announced late last week his chief of staff, Tony Silva, will be leading the state’s vaccine rollout effort after he becomes governor. Silva is a former Cumberland police chief and led the Division of Motor Vehicles when Lincoln Chafee was governor.

McKee’s advisers have suggested he is frustrated with Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, who has been leading the state’s COVID-19 response effort since the beginning of the pandemic. But Raimondo said she spoke by with phone with McKee on Monday and Alexander-Scott will continue to play a leadership role in his administration.

“Just this morning, the lieutenant governor recommitted to having her as the public health lead and the director of health,” Raimondo said. She also said it’s up to McKee to surround himself with people who will help him on the job, and expressed support for that.

“If he wants Tony to be in a particular role, that’s absolutely his prerogative and he ought to do that,” Raimondo said.

While some of Raimondo’s cabinet members — including Brett Smiley at the Department of Administration and Scott Jensen at the Department of Labor and Training — are resigning from their posts in state government, Alexander-Scott said she’s committed to staying in the job under a McKee administration.

“Definitely,” Alexander-Scott said Monday. “It’s important to keep us going strong throughout this, and I’ve enjoyed and appreciated working with our outgoing and incoming governor to keep what we need in place.”

Last summer, state senators voted nearly unanimously to reappoint Alexander-Scott for another five-year term. A spokesperson confirmed she has an employment contract with the state.

“We would be in a lot worse shape if not for Dr. Alexander-Scott’s leadership, and I am personally grateful, but also on behalf of Rhode Island,” Raimondo said.

Raimondo said while she will not resign until she is confirmed, she wants Rhode Islanders to get “comfortable with seeing Governor McKee as the person who’s leading the state through the end of the pandemic.”

But she acknowledged that some Rhode Islanders feel like nobody is in charge at a time when the state is in the middle of a public health crisis.

“That’s why I’m here today,” Raimondo said. “I’m answering questions. I am fully accountable to people of Rhode Island.”

While both Raimondo and McKee decided against showing up to the weekly coronavirus briefing last week, the governor said it was her understanding McKee would be at this week’s on Thursday. A spokesperson for McKee’s transition did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation.

“He and I are just working hand in glove to try and keep Rhode Islanders safe, and that’s certainly what we’re focused on,” she said.

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

Ted Nesi contributed to this report.

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

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