PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Out-of-state residents have received roughly one of every 10 COVID-19 vaccine doses administered so far in Rhode Island, according to newly released data covering the first seven weeks of inoculations.
The R.I. Department of Health released new ZIP code data on all vaccine recipients, showing 12% of the 97,300 doses administered through Feb. 2 went to people who didn’t live in Rhode Island. The statistic reflects the state’s strategy of first vaccinating frontline workers, such as hospital and nursing-home employees, many of whom travel into the state for work, according to health officials.
“Many of the people who work in our nursing homes, hospitals, and public safety departments live in border communities outside Rhode Island,” Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said. “Now that we are getting away from occupation-based vaccinating, the ZIP distribution will start to balance out, and the out-of-state doses should start decreasing.”
Moving forward, Rhode Island plans to offer vaccines to anybody who lives, works or attends school in the state, which Wendelken said could become standardized across the region.
“Our neighboring states are taking similar approaches,” he said. “Vaccine is being purchased by the federal government, so states are developing policies that accommodate people who commute between states.”
Besides the out-of-state vaccinations, a Target 12 analysis of first doses administered in ZIP codes with at least 10,000 residents shows the most vaccinations per capita have gone to people living in Central Falls (02863), East Greenwich (02818), Warwick (02886), downtown Providence (02903) and the East Side neighborhood of Providence (02906).
The smallest number of doses have gone to people living in the West End of Providence (02909), Elmwood, Reservoir and Lower South Providence neighborhoods (02907), Tiverton (02878), Cranston (02905) and the Smith Hill and Elmhurst neighborhoods of Providence (02908).
The newly released data offers a window into how Rhode Island’s rollout strategy of prioritizing the state’s hardest-hit neighborhoods is working in some areas, while falling short in others.
In December, Rhode Island started allocating vaccines to a pilot program in Central Falls, where local health officials estimate more than half of the city’s population has been infected at some point during the pandemic. As a result, Central Falls – which has the state’s highest rate of infections – so far has administered at least one dose of vaccine to the highest rate of residents across all ZIP codes.
Six miles south in Providence, however, the state’s strategy doesn’t appear to be working as planned. The second-highest rate of infections after Central Falls is in the West End neighborhood of Providence (02909), which so far has administered the lowest rate of vaccines across all ZIP codes with at least 10,000 people.
The city’s East Side neighborhood (02906), meanwhile, has among the lowest rate of infections in Providence, but so far has received the fifth most vaccinations per capita. The East Side is Providence’s most affluent neighborhood and is made up of mostly white residents in a city where the population is majority people of color.
The disparity was highlighted anecdotally during a recent R.I. COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee meeting, where members raised concerns about how the state’s strategy of targeting the hardest-hit neighborhoods floundered when speed became a priority.
“We have come up against a push for speed versus equity,” Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said during the meeting.
The speed of the state’s vaccine rollout strategy has come under fire in recent weeks. A recent Harvard University analysis ranked Rhode Island in the bottom 10 states nationwide for doses administered, use of available doses and speed of getting shots into arms. The school’s Belfer Center gave Rhode Island an “F” for its rollout strategy.
Health officials pushed back on the analysis, arguing speed is not a priority for their strategy because targeting specific groups and areas takes more time than simply offering vaccines on a first-come-first-served basis — the approach being used in some other states.
But Rhode Island’s pace of administering vaccines could speed up in the coming weeks, as more doses are slated to become available and the options for where to get inoculated expand.
The state is opening mass-vaccination sites at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence and the old Citizens Bank building on Sockanosset Cross Road in Cranston, with more expected to follow. Health officials have also pledged to send more than 7,000 doses to cities and towns each week for use at municipal-run clinics.
National health experts, including former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb, predict vaccines will become available to most people who want them within a couple months.
Appearing Sunday on CBS’s “Face The Nation,” Gottlieb offered some advice to government officials.
“I would be taking the federal resources and the state resources and creating more bespoke solutions that can be used in some of the hard-to-reach environments, some of the underserved communities — whether you can move mobile vans into those communities, try to work through community groups, local providers, church groups, community health centers — to try to get harder-to-reach populations vaccinated,” Gottlieb said
“That’s a very difficult effort,” he added. “It’s expensive. It’s a bespoke effort. It’s a hands-on effort. I’d be marshaling the federal resources towards that kind of a mission and letting Walmart work off the easy demand.”