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Advocates, educators jockeying for vaccine prioritization in Rhode Island

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Lobbying for vaccine prioritization in Rhode Island moved from behind the scenes into the public eye Friday, offering a window into the varying interests jockeying to be next in line for inoculations.

The R.I. COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee invited members of the public to make comments during its weekly meeting held over Zoom, and more than a dozen advocates and individuals spoke for nearly an hour to make the case that their group or demographic should be next.

“It is critical that Rhode Island prioritize older adults 65 years and older immediately,” Warwick senior services director Meg Underwood said, adding that elderly adults are becoming “increasingly frightened, lonely and deeply depressed.”  

As of Thursday, the state and its community partners had administered 48,118 doses to frontline hospital workers and nursing home residents and staff, along with some first responders and inmates. But health officials still have not decided who will be included in Phase 2 of the vaccine rollout and there is no definitive timeline for when a decision will be made.

“We don’t have an exact date,” Alysia Mihalakos, chief of the R.I. Health Department’s Center for Emergency Preparedness and Response, said during a new briefing that followed the subcommittee meeting.   

The lack of clarity is fueling uneasiness among many who want to know when they might get a vaccine, even if it doesn’t mean they are immediately next in line. While the subcommittee made general plans to discuss the matter further next week, there is currently no plan to vote on the issue.

“This is causing great anxiety,” said Marjorie Waters of the Rhode Island Organizing Project, which advocates on behalf of older adults and adults with disabilities. “People are asking: how do I get vaccinated? Where do I get vaccinated? Where do I fall on the list?”

The atmosphere of the subcommittee meeting felt similar to a House Finance Committee hearing during a normal legislative year when lawmakers are faced with deciding on a controversial piece of legislation. Dozens of people representing various groups signed up to speak and were allotted one minute each to make their case.

“Every day my husband stays unvaccinated we must be more vigilant than others at keeping COVID away,” said Christa Thompson, an ALS advocate whose husband is living with the neurological disease. His condition means the family — including their school-age children — must stay home and avoid everyone else.

“By not prioritizing my husband and his care-pod for vaccination, my family is forced to stay isolated from society,” Thompson added.

The general consensus among the majority of advocates who spoke was that older people and those with high-risk underlying health conditions and disabilities should be prioritized first. But educators also requested prioritization, arguing it would benefit the entire state to get children predictably and safely back into schools.

“The faster we can get educators vaccinated – this would be a huge step to getting back to in-person learning and helping all our students, and would certainly relieve a lot of stress that parents and students are feeling,” National Education Association Rhode Island president Larry Purtill said.

The sentiment of the teachers’ union, which has about 12,000 members, was echoed by Bristol-Warren Regional School District Superintendent Jonathan Brice, a subcommittee member, who argued all school staff should get vaccinated.

“If we could get them vaccinated, that would slow the rate of transmission in schools,” Brice said, adding that getting people back to school would allow parents to go back to work and help improve the overall economy.

The state is currently weighing whether to prioritize the next vaccination group based on age, underlying health condition, geography, occupation or some combination of those factors. The state has offered some information about who might fit into those categories, including about 220,000 people it has identified as potential frontline essential workers who didn’t make the cut for Phase 1.

McKenzie Morton, who facilitates the subcommittee meetings, said the state is taking in all recommendations, “crunching the data” and talking with experts in trying to determine who comes next. The state offered “guiding principles” for how it would make that decision, including a focus on minimizing morbidity and hospitalizations, integrating equity in the decision and reopening the economy.  

But the ambiguity surrounding that language and the open-endedness around when a decision will be made is clearly frustrating to some committee members, including Hospital Association of Rhode Island president Teresa Paiva Weed, who said the lack of definitions in the plan is concerning.

“The public needs more certainty,” said Paiva Weed, who previously served as president of the Rhode Island Senate. “The public needs to understand why, and the primary care doctors who are getting the phone calls need to know who falls [where] and why.”

The same questions, which are bubbling up at dinner tables and in board meetings across the state, were largely brushed off, as Morton moved the meeting on to public comments.

“I think we’re going to dive into that quite a bit next week,” Morton said. “We’re spending a lot of time looking at the data, what it tells us about the Rhode Island population specifically, so I just want to move us along.”

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

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

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