PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The head of the state’s second largest hospital network on Thursday defended the decision to offer COVID-19 vaccines to board members and other low-risk workers, arguing they qualified under guidance provided by state regulators.
Care New England President and CEO Dr. James Fanale publicly addressed the recent criticism aimed at his organization, along with Lifespan, as elected officials and members of the public expressed frustration that vaccines are going to people who are not at highest risk of contracting the virus.
The controversy has spurred the R.I. Attorney General’s office to open an “aggressive inquiry” into the state’s vaccination distribution plans. And at least one lawmaker has called for strict penalties and fines on anyone caught jumping the vaccine line in the future.
Fanale — whose hospital network includes Kent, Butler and Women and Infants — pushed back on the scrutiny and criticism, saying the board members who received vaccines at his organization are volunteers and thus eligible.
“They’re integral to the success of our organization,” Fanale said during a WPRO radio interview. “They spend hours volunteering time here. They are volunteers and they actively do stuff.”
Fanale expressed frustration at assertions that the health care facilities were doing anything wrong. The hospitals have prioritized all frontline workers, such as doctors, nurses, technicians and other staff who work directly with COVID-19 patients, before opening up the eligibility to everyone else affiliate with facilities, he said.
The secondary group of people has ranged from board members and trustees to administrators and office workers, including some that have been working from home during the pandemic. Fanale argued that this was done based on the guidance that was provided by the R.I. Department of Health.
“There’s no line jumping here,” he said. “This was in waves of consideration recommended by the [Health] Department, so that’s actually the truth.”
The same argument was made by Lifespan, the state’s largest hospital network, as spokesperson Kathleen Hart said Thursday the hospital prioritized staff and providers at the highest risk before “receiving clearance a couple weeks ago” to offer shots to others, such as board members.
“Every employee is important to the operations of the system,” Hart said in a statement.
The internal distribution nonetheless has resulted in sharp criticism from many people outside of the hospitals, who see it as unfair to the hundreds of thousands of Rhode Islanders who are eagerly waiting their turn for a vaccine, including many who are at the highest risk of dying from the disease.
The state is currently receiving about 14,000 first doses each week, meaning at best roughly 1.4% of the state’s population can get inoculated for the first time each week. The limited supply has forced state regulators to prioritize who goes first, a process that’s inherently controversial.
Ultimately, state leaders decided frontline workers at the highest risk – such as hospital staff, who have been treating COVID-19 patients nonstop for months – should take priority over other groups, including adults 60 years and older, who make up 90% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths. (Health officials Thursday said they expect to expand eligibility to adults 75 years and older beginning mid-February.)
With those considerations in mind, Attorney General Peter Neronha said he’s decided to become more involved in the vaccine distribution process, saying Thursday, “We want our most vulnerable residents to get this.”
“We’re not going to get there apparently all that quickly, but as we get there, we ought to do it logically and in a way that’s transparent and fair,” Neronha said during a separate WPRO radio interview earlier Thursday.
Neronha, who has described his actions as an “aggressive inquiry” rather than a full-blown investigation, said he’s been communicating with the Health Department to see what vaccine distribution guidelines were put in place and then to try and determine whether there have been any legal violations.
“If nothing else, the attention that’s been brought to this issue — to the extent it hasn’t been done already — will bring some real thought to how this vaccine is being distributed,” he said, underscoring that he hasn’t presupposed any rules have been broken.
State health officials originally defended the process of offering vaccines to hospital workers who don’t interact with patients, once frontline staff had been offered a chance first. But Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott has since asked the health care facilities to instead prioritize outpatient health care providers, such as primary care doctors and other wellness professionals who work outside of hospitals.
Alexander-Scott, who has been leading the state’s pandemic-response effort since President Joe Biden picked Gov. Gina Raimondo to become his U.S. commerce secretary, said the hospitals have been “great partners” throughout the pandemic, including the vaccine rollout. But she acknowledged that vaccines going to certain people affiliated with the hospitals isn’t a great look, especially considering the state’s limited supply and high demand.
“I definitely understand the optics concern that exists,” she said during a news briefing Thursday.
The sharpest criticism of the vaccine rollout in hospitals so far, however, has come from R.I. House Deputy Speaker Charlene Lima, D-Cranston, who asserted that Lifespan and Care New England were giving vaccines to people who were ineligible — calling it “unconscionable and criminal.”
Lima said she’s drafted legislation that would make it a felony — punishable by up to three years in prison — for any “individual, business entity employees and owners to knowingly administer any vaccine to anyone not eligible under the state issued guidelines.”
“The distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine is literally a matter of life and death and because of this we cannot tolerate even a hint of favoritism in its distribution to Rhode Islanders,” Lima said.
The hospitals have rejected the premise that they have done anything outside of state guidelines, and Alexander-Scott has not suggested the facilities have done anything illegal or improper. It’s also unclear whether Lima’s fellow lawmakers would support legislation with such severe punishment.
House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi spokesperson Meredyth Whitty said Thursday night the Warwick Democrat didn’t yet have an opinion yet.
“As of right now, the bill hasn’t been filed yet, so the speaker hasn’t read it yet and it would be premature to comment,” Whitty said. “But it will be considered appropriately through the legislative process.”
Fanale, who said he’s been fully vaccinated with two shots of the vaccine, is hoping the recent scrutiny of how the vaccine has been distributed at hospitals will not take away from the work that’s been done by his employees, who he said have been combating the coronavirus throughout the pandemic.
“The thing that’s upsetting, I told you, is we’ve done everything exactly the way we’re supposed to do it,” he said.