PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Lt. Gov. Dan McKee’s announcement that educators should be prioritized before others for the COVID-19 vaccine has sparked a mix of jubilation among teachers and consternation among others left wondering where they fit into the rollout plan.
The governor-in-waiting, who will take over once Gov. Gina Raimondo is confirmed as U.S. commerce secretary, called news outlets over the weekend to make clear he wants to see a policy shift that prioritizes the state’s 36,550 education-sector employees. But he hasn’t been entirely clear about what he wants to see beyond that in terms of prioritization, sparking some confusion over what the rollout might look like under McKee.
On Monday, the Cumberland Democrat doubled down on his wish to see teachers get moved up the list — but he also said older adults with underlying health conditions should go first, and even before teachers in some cases.
Asked who would get bumped down the list if teachers are prioritized, McKee told 12 News, “My recommendation concerning teacher vaccination availability will of course be guided by science and health expertise.”
“I am not suggesting that seniors with underlying conditions be denied access to our vaccine supply in favor of healthy, 25-year-old teachers,” he continued. “I want everyone to get vaccinated as quickly as possible, and as I’ve stated, teachers should be a priority.”
McKee’s intervention over the weekend threw a curveball into a rollout process that’s already filled with uncertainty. And it’s sparked some confusion among Rhode Islanders who are anxious to know when it will be their turn for a vaccine.
It raised the ire of other essential frontline workers, as well, who claim they aren’t receiving the same recognition as the well-organized teachers for their own work throughout the pandemic, even though there has been no opportunity for some to work remotely.
“Would you please question the [lieutenant] governor why he isn’t concerned with forward facing grocery workers who have been frontline since the start of this epidemic,” one viewer wrote in an email to Target 12, saying she works in a supermarket. “Many frontline folks including myself are over 65 and risking our health to feed and support people.”
‘Teachers need to be elevated’
Rhode Island receives about 14,000 new doses of vaccine each week, meaning at best 2,000 additional people can be inoculated per day. Roughly 60,000 Rhode Islanders have gotten at least one dose so far.
With such limited supply, the state has decided to start by vaccinating health care workers, nursing home residents, first responders and high-risk inmates, along with adults 75 years and older living at home. The state estimates it could take until March or April to get through that group, which totals more than 200,000 people.
Yet it’s still unclear who will come next, and Rhode Island is a regional outlier for not having a plan already. A Kaiser Family Foundation comparison of rollout plans across the country shows every other New England state had created plans beyond an initial Phase 1 as of Monday.
That lack of direction has led to rising criticism of Raimondo, who has stopped communicating publicly about how she wants the state to move forward as she awaits U.S. Senate confirmation.
Since President Biden picked her to become commerce secretary, the second-term Democrat has refused to answer reporters’ questions about the pandemic, despite insisting she will continue to lead Rhode Island until she wins confirmation.
A request for Raimondo to comment on McKee’s call for teachers to be prioritized – which differs from how her administration has suggested it wants to move forward – had gone unanswered as of Monday night.
Rhode Island’s COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee, a panel of mostly doctors and health care professionals who advise state leaders on vaccine-related decisions, met Friday and showed support for a Department of Health strategy that would prioritize people based on age, underlying health conditions and geography – but not occupation.
Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott — who has become the main public face of the Raimondo administration’s coronavirus policy with the governor out of sight — said such a strategy would result in more than 50% of educators getting vaccinated, along with high-risk individuals in every other profession.
But the plan evoked criticism from teachers, who have been better organized than other groups in lobbying for prioritization. (A Google Document entitled “School Staff Priority Vaccine Letters,” which has been circulating among teachers, includes specific instructions on how to write persuasive letters to both McKee and Alexander-Scott asking for prioritization.)
A day after the subcommittee meting, McKee called the unexpected weekend news conference, saying, “Teachers need to be elevated.” That created headaches for rank-and-file state workers who must now strike a balance between staying the course under the current governor while appeasing their soon-to-be boss.
But McKee’s comments were met with praise from teachers unions, who have been at odds with McKee — a proponent of charter schools — for much of his political career. National Education Association Rhode Island executive director Bob Walsh on Monday underscored that prioritizing teachers would bring Rhode Island into line with guidance from the CDC and neighboring Massachusetts.
“It was wonderful that Governor McKee addressed this issue head on,” he told 12 News, adding that he thinks the Raimondo administration needs to reconsider what was discussed during the subcommittee meeting.
“If what they said in that committee was a trial balloon, I think data has popped that balloon and they have a chance to do it a little bit better,” Walsh said.
The Health Department has declined to respond directly to McKee’s demand for teacher prioritization, but health officials said they are still working to finalize the state’s Phase 2 list.
Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, a vaccine subcommittee member and Care New England physician, said Sunday he understands why teachers would feel safer going into the classroom if they were vaccinated. But he argued that people are feeling the same way across the board, and that the state shouldn’t be in the business of promising vaccines it can’t deliver at a time when supply is limited.
“When you prioritize too many people, you don’t prioritize anyone, if there is not enough vaccine to go around,” Rodriguez told Target 12. “The end result is extreme frustration, long lines and a continuing pandemic, just like other states have experienced.”
Earlier this month, New York City hospitals were forced to abruptly cancel and postpone tens of thousands of vaccine appointments as demand for inoculations easily outpaced the city’s supply.
Health officials have warned the same would happen in Rhode Island if eligibility expanded too quickly, and Rodriguez argued that would likely increase an already-mounting level of frustration, anger and anxiety among people who are champing at the bit to get a vaccine.
“Don’t tell me I am prioritized and give me an appointment in three weeks and then cancel for lack of supply,” he said.
‘The very worst in people’
Target 12 tried to contact each member of the state’s subcommittee to see what they thought about McKee’s idea to prioritize teachers.
Many either declined to comment or did not respond to the request, while a few could not be reached. A couple offered blanket statements about looking forward to working together on the issue of prioritization, while others defended the work that’s already been done.
“It’s not like we have unlimited supply of the vaccine,” said Dr. Thomas Bledsoe, a Rhode Island Hospital physician who specializes in internal medicine. “Everyone who moves up means that someone has to move down.”
Bledsoe, who also serves as chair of Rhode Island Hospital’s ethics committee, said debate over whether people should be rewarded with the vaccine for doing their jobs during the pandemic is an already complicated question without also having to decide whether one type of worker — such as a teacher — should be rewarded over another, such as a grocery store worker.
And creating such debate at a time when there isn’t enough vaccine to go around runs the risk of being counterproductive, he added.
“Getting into a fight today about who gets a vaccine in a month is just going to generate ill will and we don’t need that right now,” he said.
Dr. Kerry LaPlante, chair of pharmacy at the University of Rhode Island and another subcommittee member, said she agreed with McKee that teachers should be prioritized. But she also wants to see all essential frontline workers — such as grocery store and factory employees — moved up, as well.
“My text string blew up on Saturday after that news conference and I can’t say I disagree,” LaPlante said, adding that she has a lot of friends and colleagues who are teachers. “We need to consider all persons and reopening the economy and providing a safe community for our children and protecting our most vulnerable. That is the highest possible priority.”
McKee, who could ascend to the state’s top office by the beginning of next month, is getting a crash course on what it’s like to make high-stake decisions under immense pressure. And he may get only a limited “honeymoon period,” as political observers dub the opening weeks of a new official’s term when he or she often gets the benefit of the doubt.
Instead, he will be faced with leading Rhode Island out of the worst public health crisis the state has seen in a century. And figuring out the vaccine rollout at a time when supply is limited and tensions are high could be his first big test as the state’s leader.
The task could become easier if the state at some point gets more of the vaccine from the federal government, but it’s unclear at this point if that will happen anytime soon. The longer it takes, the more it could amplify the frustration around the issue of prioritization.
Kathy Heren, a subcommittee member who also serves as Rhode Island’s long-term care ombudsman, declined to comment on McKee’s push to prioritize teachers. But she captured the state’s current mood when it comes to vaccines.
“Everyone yelling and carrying on is not going to produce vaccine,” she said. “This has really brought out the very worst in people.”
Anita Baffoni contributed to this story.