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RI attorney general examining possible ‘legal violations’ tied to vaccine distribution

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The R.I. Attorney General’s office is examining whether the state’s distribution of vaccines has resulted in any legal violations, as hospitals recently expanded eligibility to include people who don’t work directly with patients.

Kristy dosReis, a spokesperson for Attorney General Peter Neronha, said Wednesday her office has been communicating with the R.I. Department of Health about distribution guidelines at Lifespan and Care New England, the state’s largest hospital networks, where most of the inoculations so far have happened.

“Any deviation from the guidelines is of great concern to this office,” dosReis said. “We intend to look into any improper distribution to determine whether legal violations occurred.”

The inquiry, which dosReis said is “not an investigation,” comes in the wake of news that the state’s largest hospitals started offering vaccines to some low-risk people with varying levels of involvement at the facilities. The group includes board members, trustees, administrators, people working remotely, and many others who don’t interact with patients.

State health officials initially defended the early inoculations of certain low-risk employees, saying 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.

Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken echoed the sentiment Wednesday, saying other types of hospital employees receiving vaccines include social workers, laboratory staff, administrators and dieticians.

But the state’s medical director, Dr. James McDonald, acknowledged Wednesday that vaccinations for board members wasn’t the state’s goal when sending doses to hospitals first.

“Obviously, that was not our intent, for board members to be getting vaccine ahead of health care providers,” McDonald said during a WPRO radio interview.

McDonald also referenced a “course correction,” which Wendelken later explained is a state directive that asks the hospitals to start vaccinating affiliated outpatient providers after clinical staff receives inoculations. Outpatient care typically includes health and wellness programs, chemotherapy and same-day surgeries, along with physical rehabilitation programs.

“We asked them to help us start getting the outpatient providers vaccinated more quickly,” Wendelken said.

When asked about the attorney general’s inquiry, Care New England executive chief of medicine Dr. Raymond Powrie said the hospital has followed the state’s plan for vaccinations.

“All CNE hospital workers were offered vaccine to ensure continued staffing of all hospital functions during pandemic surges, beginning with those with the closest contact with patients, and progressing to support staff and now to volunteers and affiliated and community practices,” Powrie said in a statement.

The doctor declined to respond to criticism that vaccines have been offered to low-risk representatives of the hospital, such as board members and trustees.

“Our team appreciates and defers to the expert guidance of the [Health Department] in our shared goal of ensuring every willing Rhode Islander be vaccinated for COVID-19,” Powrie added. “We continue to work diligently and daily with them to  do everything we can to help them implement the next steps of the state vaccination plan.”

A Lifespan spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

As of Wednesday, health officials reported 49,113 first doses of the vaccine had been administered, and nearly 12,000 people — about 1.1% of the state’s population — had been fully vaccinated with two doses. The state is currently receiving about 14,000 first doses from the federal government each week, meaning roughly 2,000 people can get inoculated for the first time each day.

The limited supply has made the distribution process controversial, as many want to be prioritized first, including older adults — who have disproportionately been killed by COVID-19.

The state so far has prioritized frontline health care workers and nursing home residents, along with emergency responders, some inmates and dentists. Adults 75 years and older living at home are also high on the list, although vaccinations for them haven’t started yet.

It wasn’t immediately clear what type of legal violations the attorney general’s office believes might have occurred, but the involvement of the state’s top prosecutor indicates he is taking a more involved look at the controversial process.

“Whether or not any legal violations occurred, we urge the entities that are charged with vaccine administration to do so in an equitable and transparent manner and in strict compliance with [Health Department] guidance,” dosReis said.

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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