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Hit hard by pandemic, Providence lags other communities on vaccinations

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – With some of the highest rates of infections and hospitalizations throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Providence has become a focus of the state’s vaccine rollout strategy.

But so far, the capital city has one of the lowest vaccination rates across all cities and towns.

The R.I. Department of Health on Thursday reported just 14.2% of Providence residents had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, representing the second lowest rate, with only Woonsocket lower. Statewide, nearly 20% of the state’s population have received at least one vaccine dose.

“There are a lot of challenges – a lot of structural things,” Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza told Target 12 on Thursday. “We have, by definition, hard-to-reach communities.”

The lower rate in Providence comes despite the state allocating extra doses and authorizing expanded eligibility in the hardest-hit neighborhoods covered by the ZIP codes 02909, 02908 and 02907. Those neighborhood had among the highest rates of infections and hospitalizations outside of Central Falls, the hardest-hit community.

Despite the added flexibility, the mayor said reaching out to eligible residents and notifying them that these vaccines are available remains a challenge. The resources necessary to lay the groundwork are also limited, he added.

“We need dollars,” he said. “We’ve been relying a great deal on volunteers. … There’s only so long we can do this and so much we can expect from a volunteer-run operation.”

At the state level, health officials also point to other contributing factors, such as limited access to technology and unreliable transportation within certain neighborhoods.

“All of those things are issues,” Health Department consultant Sheena Gordon said Wednesday during a R.I. COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee meeting.

Gordon, who is heading the state’s effort to target hard-hit communities, said health officials have found little success when publishing public links for sign-up for appointments at community-based clinics because people without access to technology “get boxed out” by those with computers and smartphones.

In North Providence, where there’s a specialty clinic that’s offered vaccines to eligible North Providence and Providence residents, Dr. Wilfred Giordano-Perez said it’s been challenging to advertise to eligible community members. Giordano-Perez, who is also a subcommittee member, said it’s been tough to fill up slots for just a few hundred patients in recent weeks.

“We’re having to have all of our doctors and our nurses post on their Facebook and do whatever they can to advertise to people in the community and ask families, but we’ve found it to be quite a difficult task,” he said.

(Credit: R.I. Department of Health)

Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott this week acknowledged the lower rate of vaccinations in some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, saying Rhode Island needs to do better.

A Health Department analysis of vaccination and hospitalization data in ZIP codes with at least 10,000 residents shows most neighborhoods with higher-than-average COVID-19 hospitalizations have lower-than-average vaccination rates.

“This is a place where we are calling out for our own improvement,” she said.

The state’s vaccine rollout has shifted from a slower, more targeted strategy to a more rapid approach that pushes most doses through its two current mass-vaccination sites in Providence and Cranston. Eligible residents from any community have the ability to sign up for the appointments, which are offered on a first-come, first-served basis.

As a result the state has soared up national rankings for vaccinations, breaking into the top 10 in terms of doses used, according to The New York Times’ closely watched tracking page. That is a sharp contrast to a few weeks ago when Rhode Island ranked dead last.

When the state decided to pivot to a more rapid strategy, however, some subcommittee members raised concerns that harder-hit communities could start to fall behind. That trend has happened in other states, and there are signs it’s happening in Rhode Island, specifically in Pawtucket, Providence and Woonsocket — which all have the lowest rates of first-dose vaccinations as a share of population.

Meanwhile, there is one shining example from the state’s earlier targeted effort.

“Central Falls is the good news,” Alexander-Scott said, pointing out that the state’s smallest city now has the highest rate of residents at least partially vaccinated.

The state started vaccinating residents in Central Falls in late December as part of a pilot program. Today, all adults are eligible and a third of the city’s 15,000 residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to state data.

Alexander-Scott lauded the city for its aggressive outreach efforts, which at one point even included going door-to-door in apartment complexes to help people get signed up.

Gordon said Central Falls had seen a lull in appointments in recent weeks, but demand has picked up again recently — a trend she attributed to ever-improving outreach efforts.

Ranking after Central Falls in vaccinations per capita are East Greenwich (32.5% of the population) and Jamestown (31.9%).

In Providence, however, there is an issue beyond the logistical challenges: vaccine hesitancy, which Elorza acknowledged is a reality among some city residents.

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza (WPRI/File)

“I definitely think that’s real,” Elorza said. “There’s just a level of skepticism. I understand where it comes from, but I’ve been urging everyone in our community to get vaccinated.”

Health officials are aggressively trying to compete with unsubstantiated rumors and conspiracy theories shared widely across social media that cast doubt on COVID-19 vaccines The Roman Catholic Church has also sent mixed messages about the newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine, with Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin saying Thursday it should be avoided if possible.

Vaccine hesitancy has been an immediate priority for Gov. Dan McKee, who spent his first full day in office Wednesday visiting municipal vaccine clinics and signing an executive order aimed at reducing tacking the issue.

“There’s going to be a point when we have more vaccine that we have people willing to take shots,” McKee said Thursday during his first COVID-19 media briefing since becoming governor. He said the goal is to get at least 70% to 75% of Rhode Island’s population fully vaccinated as soon as possible.

In Providence, Elorza is hopeful more people will become eager to get vaccinated as time goes by. The mayor said he expects those who are hesitant will eventually see that the vaccines are not negatively affecting the people around them.

“The more and more neighbors, friends and family members you know who have gotten vaccinated are safe, the more people will see that indeed these vaccines are safe,” he said.

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

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 managing editor and chief investigative reporter at 12 News, and the host of Newsmakers. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook

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

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