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How to decipher Rhode Island’s true COVID-19 vaccination rate

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – How many people are fully vaccinated in Rhode Island?

In theory, the answer should be relatively simple to figure out. Just add up everyone who received one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, plus everyone who received two doses of Moderna or Pfizer. Then divide that number by the state’s total population to get the vaccination rate.

Yet for several reasons, getting an accurate figure isn’t always so simple.

For starters, federal and state leaders — including Gov. Dan McKee — often cite the highest figures available, which look good, but don’t always offer a full picture from a public health perspective.

“We’ve mentioned that we’re going to get 90% of the adults vaccinated in Rhode Island,” McKee said this week during a news conference. “We’re about 97% with one shot. We’re approaching 90% now, a couple points away.”

For months, state officials have been pointing to adults as a barometer for vaccination rates, dating back to earlier this year when only adults were eligible. Today, Rhode Islanders five years and older can get COVID-19 vaccines, making the 18-plus calculation less meaningful — especially since the virus can be contracted and spread by all age groups.

But it’s not just about how elected officials discuss the numbers that creates confusion. The state’s vaccination data can also vary – sometimes by thousands of people – depending on how the numbers are collected and disseminated.

For example, the R.I. Department of Health’s database of historical vaccine data showed 767,620 people had been fully vaccinated as of Thursday. But the running total doesn’t include vaccines administered at federal facilities, such as the VA Hospital, where a whole subsection of Rhode Islanders are more likely to receive health services.

Meanwhile, on the department’s main data page — sometimes shown during the governor’s televised COVID-19 briefings — the number of people listed as fully vaccinated is pegged at 789,670, roughly 22,000 higher than the database total. But that number is not just Rhode Islanders — it also includes people who are residents of other states but happened to get their shots in Rhode Island.

And we’re not done yet.

Rhode Island’s tally of the fully vaccinated changes again when you examine the state’s standalone vaccine page. That page lists 808,391 people as fully vaccinated, almost 40,000 more than the first of the three figures being published.

That 808,391 number includes Rhode Islanders who were vaccinated out of state, along with residents vaccinated at federal facilities — but excludes out-of-state residents vaccinated in Rhode Island.

Is your head spinning yet?

Health officials point to the third number – 808,391 people – as the state’s best estimate for how many Rhode Islanders are in fact fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. And based on that estimate, the state reports a population-wide vaccination rate of about 76.5%.

But even that percentage is somewhat misleading — because the Health Department is still using an outdated estimate of Rhode Island’s population from the U.S. Census Bureau that dates back to 2018.

Since then, however, the actual census has been conducted — and it showed Rhode Island’s population totaled 1,097,379 residents in 2020, more than previously estimated. Using the census count, Rhode Island’s vaccination rate dips to 73.7%. (This is the percentage 12 News uses on the WPRI.com COVID-19 Tracking page.)

Yet even that number’s days may be — well — numbered.

Federal and state health officials are moving toward changing the definition of “fully vaccinated” to only include people who have received a booster or other additional dose of the available vaccines.  

“From a public health perspective, that’s absolutely the direction that we want to go,” Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said during a news conference this week.

The Health Department has not yet amassed robust data on booster shots, making it difficult to assess exactly the share of Rhode Island’s population that would be considered fully vaccinated under the new definition.

But some back-of-the-envelope math based on the state’s tally of daily doses shows nearly 251,000 people have received booster shots or third doses. And earlier this week McKee publicly said the number is closer to 260,000 people.

If that’s the case, based on current census data, only about 23% to 24% of the state’s population would be considered fully vaccinated right now.

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

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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