PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – For months, Rhode Island’s vaccine rollout has been a bit of a mad dash.
A couple times each week, health officials would release new appointments at a set time and everyone who’s eligible has scrambled to grab open slots before someone else snatches them up.
The approach has been likened to “The Hunger Games,” and in some ways it’s proven effective. State leaders boast Rhode Island has vaccinated over 80% of residents 60 years and older – a key demographic that also accounts for 93% of the state’s 2,651 COVID-19 deaths.
“We continue to see very strong demand that span some of these age groups,” said Tom McCarthy, executive director of the state’s COVID-19 response team.
Over the past week, however, the mad dash has turned into more of a slow trot, with vaccine appointments getting booked on the state’s website at a slower pace. Health officials were hopeful demand would pick back up Monday, when roughly a quarter-million people became newly eligible for a shot. But once again slots have been snapped up more slowly than in the past.
The trend signals one of Rhode Island’s next big vaccine challenges, as the state finally reaches its youngest and least enthusiastic group of eligible recipients.
According to a March 30 NPR/Marist poll, 30% of Generation Z and Millennial respondents nationwide, ages 18 to 39, said they do not plan to get vaccinated. Roughly 31% of Generation X respondents, comprising adults 40 to 55 years old, likewise said they would refuse the vaccine.
By comparison, 17% of Baby Boomer respondents and only 10% of the Silent/Greatest Generation — people over 74 years old — said they wouldn’t get vaccinated.
In Rhode Island, McCarthy acknowledged younger adults might not be as eager to get vaccinated, saying some don’t see the virus as so threatening to their health.
“As people perceive their risk of negative outcomes from COVID-19, their sense of urgency and desire to get the vaccine as quickly as they can, I think we’re anticipating that it might not be quite as high,” he said.
Among older groups of Rhode Islanders, demand was nearly universal: 87% of residents ages 65 and older had gotten vaccinated as of April 12, and the same was true of more than half of residents ages 50 to 64, according to Health Department data. But only 38% of residents in their 40s and 26% of residents ages 16 to 39 had gotten a shot, with most of their cohorts still ineligible at the time.
Travis Escobar, president and founder of the young professionals networking group Millennial RI, said anecdotally most of his peers are excited about getting the vaccine. But he’s hearing from some who aren’t convinced.
“There are a good amount of people I know personally that have their concerns,” Escobar told Target 12, adding that many feel like they would rather take their risks with COVID-19 than any potential side effects from the vaccine. The recent pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine hasn’t helped, he said.
Escobar, a Providence resident who got sick with a mild case of COVID-19 during the winter, recently received his first shot of the Moderna vaccine. He’s since been sharing his experience with others who are skeptical, offering up his personal experience, along with educational materials about how the vaccine is highly effective and could help his home city and state get back to where it was before the pandemic.
“I took the vaccine too because I want to go to concerts, I want to go to sporting events again, I want to be able to experience nightlife,” he said. “And in a way, taking that shot is a way to help small businesses – businesses that have suffered with the loss of not being able to open fully.”
Young and healthy Rhode Islanders do stand a better chance against COVID-19 than older residents. The R.I. Department of Health released new data Tuesday showing people ages 80 and older are 17 times more likely to be hospitalized after contracting the virus than adults 19 to 24 years old. And the risk grows steadily with age.
But health officials say getting vaccinated isn’t just about protecting yourself. Federal regulators have said there are signs the virus is less likely to spread among people who are vaccinated, meaning the probability of young and healthy adults giving the virus to older people falls dramatically if both people have been inoculated.
And the longer the state, region, country and globe fails to reach herd immunity – the point at which the virus can no longer spread easily, halting transmission – the greater the chance that the novel coronavirus will continue to mutate into new variants, experts say. In Rhode Island, health officials already estimate the B117 variant, a mutated version of the virus that started in the United Kingdom, has already become the dominant strain locally.
Escobar said he also tries to highlight these points when talking with friends.
“Even if we’re less likely to have a reaction to it, we can still carry it on and pass it on to immunocompromised people, or people who are older that could have a severe reaction,” he said.
Rhode Island has set a goal of getting 70% of the state’s population inoculated, and McCarthy is hopeful people who have already become vaccinated will help convince those around them to support the effort. The state currently estimates that goal could be reached by early June, but the timing will depend on demand.
“Be an ambassador,” McCarthy said. “Have those conversations with your friends, with your family, and with your neighbors because what’s ultimately going to allow us to reopen safely is getting everyone vaccinated as quickly as we possibly can.”
Below is a Target 12 projection based on current trends
In some instances, young people will have to choose between getting vaccinated or sitting out certain activities. For example, Brown University will require on-campus undergraduate, graduate and medical students to get a COVID-19 vaccine this fall.
“Brown’s COVID-19 Vaccine Working Group continues to assess whether vaccination against COVID-19 should be mandatory for employees,” representatives wrote on the university’s website, adding that a recommendation would be made by June 1.
Roger Williams University is likewise requiring its students to get vaccinated.
Mandatory vaccines tied to education are not unusual. Rhode Island currently requires most children to get vaccinated ahead of entering public schools, unless they have religious or medical exemptions. Rhode Island currently reports a nearly 98% compliance rate, ranking fifth-highest in the country, according to figures tracked by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Yet vaccine mandates have become the latest political flash point of the COVID-19 pandemic. The idea of vaccine passports, or requiring people to show some type of vaccination proof to participate in certain activities, has been met with fierce pushback nationwide.
In Rhode Island, a bipartisan bill proposed in February would prohibit employers or other public and private institutions from discriminating against people who decide against getting the vaccine.
Other lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Blake Filippi, have also pushed back on ever having to disclose what he describes as a private medical decision.
“Whether you get vaccinated or not indirectly affects another person’s life, not directly affects someone’s life, so I believe they don’t have a right to know,” Filippi, R-New Shoreham, told 12 News during a recent interview. “If you feel comfortable and you want to get vaccinated you should, but it’s not anyone else’s business, and our access to commerce or access to travel across state lines to go into businesses should not be affected.”
How such policies might be developed in Rhode Island could largely depend on Gov. Dan McKee, who still has broad authority over decision-making in a state that’s been under an emergency order for more than a year.
During a news conference Tuesday, McKee said his office is in the process of contacting all colleges and universities, as well as big businesses — such as Electric Boat — and other organizations to discuss potential next steps. He didn’t provide specifics, but said his goal is to make sure demand doesn’t slip away just as supply is ratcheting up.
“We’re in that mode where we need to do the reach out in every way we can,” he said.
Eli Sherman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.