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Rhode Islanders ages 60-plus make up 25% of vaccine recipients so far

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Most of the roughly 51,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered so far in Rhode Island have gone into the arms of white people under the age of 60.

The R.I. Department of Health has released new data on the vaccinations done through last Friday, showing 74% of doses have been administered to people between the ages of 19 and 59. The rest – roughly 25% — have been administered to people 60 years and older.

White people make up about 65% of the total, followed by 21% of recipients who did not report their race. Black Rhode Islanders make up just 3% of recipients, Asian Rhode Islanders represent 2% and the remainder – 8% — are characterized as “other.”

For comparison, white Rhode Islanders make up 71% of the state’s population, followed by 16% Hispanic or Latino, 8% Black and 4% Asian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The state data shows 6% of the all vaccine recipients reported their ethnicity as Hispanic or Latino, which is not represented as a standalone race in the state’s data. (There may be a small number of doses not represented in the data, as some of the state’s vaccination partners are still finalizing their reporting systems.)

The vaccine breakdown reflects people the state has prioritized first to get the vaccine, including frontline health care workers and nursing home residents. The state’s strategy is to vaccinate people who are deemed at highest risk of contracting the virus.

The groups include emergency department doctors, nurses and technical workers, along with employees and residents at long-term care facilities, where most of the 2,005 COVID-19 deaths in Rhode Island have happened.

But the two largest hospital networks – Lifespan and Care New England – have also expanded eligibility to everyone else at their facilities, including board members, trustees, administrators, people working remotely and many others who don’t interact with patients. The expanded eligibility was first reported by The Providence Journal.

State health officials said they have asked hospitals to prioritize patient-facing employees first and argued that many jobs, while not involving any patient interaction, are “essential to the continuity of operations.”

“The health care workers cannot do their jobs if the IT workers are not running the network,” Alysia Mihalakos, chief of the R.I. Health Department’s Center for Emergency Preparedness and Response, said during a news briefing Friday.

Mihalakos also said it would be operationally inefficient not to inoculate whoever is available once a vaccine package – containing 975 doses for the Pfizer vaccine – is opened.

“Breaking those apart and forcing people into a situation where they move the vaccine around more than it’s already being done actually puts us at more risk of wasting vaccine, and that is absolutely the last thing we want to do,” she said.

Dr. Philip Chan, a consultant medical director at the Health Department, likewise defended the hospitals, saying the state’s success relative to other states in getting the vaccines quickly into arms is thanks largely to health care facilities. As of Monday, Rhode Island ranked No. 18 across all states and U.S. territories based on doses administered per capita, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It ranked second-to-last compared to other New England states. Massachusetts ranked No. 31 and last in New England.

“The hospitals have really stepped up during this pandemic,” Chan said.

But the news that the vaccines have been offered to some wealthy and well-connected Rhode Islanders on hospital boards ahead of nearly everyone else in the state – including older adults with underlying health conditions, who are at highest risk of dying after contracting the disease – has frustrated many who are champing at the bit to get in line.

“I know that Reps are getting many calls from constituents over 65 who are very confused, anxious and in some cases angry about the allocations,” Rep. Terri Cortvriend, D-Portsmouth, tweeted last week, referencing the news that low-risk hospital officials were getting offered the vaccine. “This has a really bad look with such limited supply.”

In addition to frontline workers and nursing home residents, the state has prioritized some other groups, including law enforcement and some inmates, along with adults 75 years and older. As of Friday, the state hadn’t started vaccinating the older adults and still had not committed to establishing a timeline for when they will announce how eligibility will be expanded statewide.

Unlike other states, such as Florida and New York, the state has not prioritized people 65 years and older, fueling frustration among older adults and advocacy groups. Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, who is running the state’s response effort after Gov. Gina Raimondo announced she will exit midterm to join the Biden administration, tried to explain the rationale in a newsletter distributed Friday.

“We want to get vaccine to people older than 65 too,” she wrote. “The limiting factor is not federal rules, or our approach in Rhode Island. The limiting factor is the amount of vaccine we are getting. We are getting 14,000 first doses of vaccine a week. There are close to 190,000 people in Rhode Island who are 65 years of age and older. It would not be honest or fair of us to say that all Rhode Islanders older than 65 can get vaccinated tomorrow, because we just don’t have the vaccine.”

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

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

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