PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s vaccination campaign is stalling at the same time that health officials are expressing concerns about spread of the highly contagious coronavirus variant known as Delta.
A Target 12 analysis of R.I. Department of Health data shows the state is vaccinating fewer than 700 new people each day against COVID-19 on average, a massive decline from the peak of more than 8,000 a day in April.
And while Rhode Island leaders celebrated being one of the few states to hit President Biden’s goal of vaccinating 70% of adults by July 4, at the current pace the state isn’t on track to vaccinate 70% of all 1.1 million residents until November, according to the analysis. The latter number is currently at about 63%.
To be sure, Rhode Island is still in far better shape than most of the country, boasting a vaccination rate that ranks among the highest nationwide. Yet it has slipped behind all other New England states except New Hampshire, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, and roughly a third of the state’s population — more than 400,000 Rhode Islanders — still have not gotten a shot.
Meanwhile, a growing number of health officials are raising concerns about the Delta variant, which is estimated to be 40% to 60% more contagious than the original virus, and now represents upward of 50% of all new infections in the country.
“We’re in a much better space than the rest of the country, but we cannot let our guard drop,” Dr. Megan Ranney, a nationally renowned Brown University emergency care doctor, said during an interview with 12 News this week. “We do have such a large percentage of our population that’s not vaccinated yet.”
In Rhode Island, average daily infections have been trending upward since hitting a low of 15.3 per day on June 30. As of Tuesday, the average had nearly doubled to 27.7 cases, matching a trend seen across the country. At the same time, COVID-19 hospitalizations have begun to edge up again, reversing a steady decline that started in April.
Once again, those numbers should be put in perspective: they are nowhere near what was seen during Rhode Island’s second wave around the New Year, when daily infections topped 1,000 and hospitalizations peaked at 514 people. Nearly 1,000 Rhode Islanders died from COVID-19 between December and January.
But new vaccinations have stalled at the same time the Delta variant is surging nationally and internationally. “We are now in the early stages of a third wave,” Dr. Tedros Adhanhom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, said Wednesday.
“The Delta variant is one of the main drivers of the current increase in transmission, fueled by increased social mixing and mobility, and inconsistent use of proven public health and social measures,” he said in prepared remarks.
In Rhode Island, health officials don’t have a great grasp on the prevalence of the Delta variant.
It first showed up nearly a month ago, and so far the Health Department has identified 14 Delta cases. But health officials only screen a portion of total infections each week, making it tough to gauge prevalence shortly after a new variant appears.
“It’s hard to estimate how many of our overall cases are Delta cases,” Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken told Target 12 last week. “The Delta variant emerged in Rhode Island just a few weeks ago and the data for these weeks are still not complete.”
What’s clearer is that infections and hospitalizations are found most often among people who have not gotten inoculated. With nearly two-thirds of Rhode Islanders vaccinated, health officials hope that the state will not return to the same level of severe sickness and death seen last winter.
In Rhode Island, unvaccinated people have accounted for 92% of infections and 86% of COVID-19 hospitalizations since January, according to new data released this week. And state leaders are starting to use those numbers as a rallying call for unvaccinated people to get inoculated.
“That’s a loud, clear message,” Gov. Dan McKee said during a news conference Tuesday. “People who are vaccinated are significantly more protected than people who are not vaccinated.”
McKee — like other governors — has tried to convince more people to get vaccinated through special events and incentives, including deploying pop-up vaccination clinics at Dunkin’ Donuts coffee shops on “Iced Coffee Day” in May.
But unlike Massachusetts — which has created a lottery to award $1 million or scholarships to vaccinated residents — McKee has decided against individualized incentives. Instead, the governor has announced a plan to donate $10,000 grants to nonprofits every time 5,000 doses are administered in Rhode Island.
“Would you rather give $1 million to one person or spread $1 million out over thousands of people and to help them?” McKee asked rhetorically when he first announced it.
However, early signs suggest the plan may not be having the desired effect of spurring unvaccinated Rhode Islanders to go get a shot. Since McKee first discussed the idea on June 17, the number of new people getting vaccinated daily has declined steadily, from 981 to fewer than 700.
Looking ahead, state officials are hoping the months-long decline in shots administered might reverse this fall, with all 11 Rhode Island colleges and universities mandating students to get vaccinated before returning to campus.
If followed, the mandate would result in roughly 73,000 young adults becoming vaccinated, helping the state reach a demographic that has been less likely to take the vaccine. Only about half of Rhode Islanders 19 to 24 years old have been vaccinated, which pales in comparison to some older age groups. (About 97% of people 70 to 79 years old have been vaccinated.)
“This is a big, important step for us,” McKee said Tuesday about the college mandates.
Behind the scenes, discussions are also taking place about whether to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for eligible school-age children and teenagers; other types of vaccines — such as the one for mumps — are already mandated for most children. But there’s far more skepticism swirling around the COVID-19 vaccines and some families may resist giving them to their children, especially because younger people typically fare better than older adults after contracting the virus.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also has not given the COVID-19 vaccines final approval, which is being pointed to as another the reason not to mandate vaccines among children and teenagers.
For now, public school leaders — including at the state-controlled Providence Public School District — are encouraging but not requiring all eligible students 12 years and older to get vaccinated.
“The push to protect as many people as possible against COVID-19 comes at a time when the Delta variant, a strain of COVID that is much more infectious than previous strains, is spreading fast through unvaccinated communities throughout the United States,” interim Superintendent Javier Montañez wrote in a recent letter to parents, adding that students must get their first shot by Aug. 5 to be fully vaccinated before the start of school.
“The more people who get vaccinated this summer, the safer we will all be this fall,” he added.
Health officials predict the places most at risk of seeing isolated breakouts are communities where vaccination rates are low, especially those under 50%.
As of Tuesday, Tiverton and Woonsocket were the only two Rhode Island communities with vaccination rates less than 50%. Another 11 communities reported vaccination rates below 60%, including Bristol, South Kingstown, West Warwick, Westerly, Little Compton, Glocester, Providence, Pawtucket, Newport, Foster and Burrillville.
Some rates are also likely lower than reported, as the state uses 2018 U.S. Census Bureau data to run the numbers. Earlier this year, census officials announced Rhode Island’s population grew far more than expected in last year’s count. Municipal-level data will not be available until next month.
Ranney — who has developed a national profile during the pandemic due to her expertise — said the effort to get more people vaccinated happens daily through conversations with her patients in the emergency room. Ranney said she’s hopeful because she sees many patients come around to the idea, which tells her some people just need better information and aren’t dead set against getting the vaccine.
Still, she’s clearly wary about what’s happening across the country.
“We know how this disease spreads, we’ve been through this before ,” Ranney said. “I hope we can avoid another surge here in Rhode Island.”
Kim Kalunian contributed to this report.