PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos said Friday a high volume of misinformation about the coronavirus vaccine shared on social media is keeping vaccination rates low in certain parts of Rhode Island, including her hometown of Providence.
The lieutenant governor, who served as Providence City Council president prior to being picked for the statewide position earlier this year, highlighted that her hometown isn’t seeing high rates of vaccinations — despite being one of the areas hardest hit with COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations during the pandemic.
Asked why the community’s experience with illness that comes along with the virus hasn’t spurred more people to get vaccinated, the Democrat pointed to social media where unfettered false information about the vaccine is widely shared.
“We’re fighting misinformation,” Matos said during a taping of WPRI’s Newsmakers on Friday. “Our community is receiving a lot of misinformation on social media.”
Only about 57% of Providence residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to data provided by the R.I. Department of Health, falling short of the statewide rate of about 64%.
A Target 12 analysis of Health Department data shows nearly one of every five residents of the city tested positive for the coronavirus at some point during the pandemic. And over the past two weeks, as cases are rising again in Rhode Island, the rate of new infections has more than doubled from 16 cases per 100,000 residents to 33, according to the state.
The uptick of new infections in the capital city comes at the same time state and national health officials are expressing concerns about spread of the highly contagious variant known as delta.
Rhode Island’s vaccination effort, meanwhile, has slumped — as the number of new people getting a vaccine each day has declined from a peak of more than 8,000 in April to about 700 per day this month.
Nearly 400,000 of the state’s 1.1 million population have not been vaccinated, of which 57% are currently eligible, according to the Target 12 analysis. (About 171,000 people are not old enough yet to receive one of the approved vaccine.)
Statewide, the Health Department on Friday reported 84 new infections, along with 16 people with COVID-19 currently in the hospital. The rate of community transmission increased to 45.4 new cases per 100,000 people over the past week, according to the state.
While infections have been rising throughout the month, hospitalizations and deaths have remained low. The positivity rate totaled 1.4% Friday, as the state reported zero new deaths.
Matos’ concerns about the spread of misinformation online echoed a sentiment shared by President Joe Biden, who accused social media giants like Facebook of “killing people” by allowing the false information to spread on its platform.
Facebook pushed back, saying the president’s comments are not supported by facts, and that the company has tried to promote accurate information about the virus and vaccines. (Biden later walked back his comments, blaming the deaths on the people who were using Facebook to spread the misinformation.)
Matos said she sees the misinformation on her own social media, shared by people who are close to her personally. While she did not cite any specific misinformation during the interview, some of the more popular debunked ideas widely circulating online include the ideas that COVID-19 vaccines cause people to become magnetic, make it unsafe to have a baby and alter DNA.
“I see the misinformation, I see it from friends and relatives,” she said. “I think that’s what’s affecting our numbers.”
Sen. Jack Reed encouraged Americans to consider the source of the information before sharing it with others.
“I’m concerned misinformation has upset the process and is holding people back from getting the vaccination that could literally save their lives,” Reed said.
Reed hopes social media platforms will become part of the solution.
“If they provide accurate information, and if they are conscious of the misinformation and exclude that, they they can be a very powerful force,” he said.
Despite her concerns about the low rate of vaccinations in some areas of the state, Matos still boasted the statewide vaccination rate, which is ranked among the highest in the country.
Given the rosier statewide picture, Matos said she doesn’t envision all of Rhode Island having to go back toward statewide mandates, such as mandatory mask-wearing.
“It’s tough to say to the whole state of Rhode Island, ‘You have to go back and wear a mask,’ when you see those numbers — when the issues right now are specific communities.”
The sentiment echoed Gov. Dan McKee, who said earlier this week he doesn’t want to see the state move backward in terms of reopening the economy and relaxing restrictions.
Providence — with 50.8% of its population fully vaccinated — currently ranks sixth from the bottom, according to a state analysis based on 2018 census data. The municipalities with lower full vaccination rates include Pawtucket (50.7%), Newport (50.6%), Burrillville (49.7%), Tiverton (46.3%) and Woonsocket (44.5%).
“We have to continue to push in those communities,” Matos said. “Push for the vaccination and try as much as possible to correct the misinformation that’s being spread.”
Tim White, Steph Machado and Anita Baffoni contributed to this story.