PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island continues to report huge declines of coronavirus infections and hospitalizations, although it remains unclear how much of the drop is directly attributable to vaccinations.
Rhode Island set a single-day record for COVID-19 hospitalizations on Dec. 14, when at least 85 people with the virus were admitted to the hospital — the same day the first coronavirus vaccine dose was administered in Rhode Island.
Since then, the seven-day average for hospitalizations has tumbled 66%, with daily new patient admissions falling as low as 15 people last Thursday, according to a Target 12 analysis of R.I. Department of Health data.
Meanwhile, daily coronavirus infections have declined consistently since surging around the holidays.
In early December, Rhode Island averaged more than 1,000 new infections per day, with another spike just after New Year’s. By Monday, though, the average had declined to 310 cases a day — still much higher than the double-digit levels seen last summer, but far below this winter’s highs.
“I know everyone’s focused on vaccinations at the moment — with very good reason — but I do think, though, it’s important that we keep our eye on the overall state of the coronavirus pandemic in Rhode Island,” Gov. Gina Raimondo said Monday during a conference call with reporters. “The overall picture, as it relates to us, is that we’re in a good and stable place.”
The Health Department on Tuesday reported 292 new infections, along with 186 current hospitalizations and 10 more deaths. The state’s positivity rate totaled 2.9%.
State leaders have argued that the Raimondo administration’s highly targeted vaccine rollout strategy – which has come under fire in recent weeks for moving too slowly but is now picking up speed – has played a role in the improved health outcomes.
The Raimondo administration’s highly targeted vaccine rollout strategy has come under fire in recent weeks for moving too slowly. But it is now picking up speed, and state leaders argue the initial targeting played a role in the improved coronavirus trends.
However, the extent to which the vaccination strategy has caused the decline is unclear. Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott on Tuesday told the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee that the improved results “are not solely due to our vaccine campaign or strategy.”
“It is one of the three tools that we have promoted and focused on,” Alexander-Scott said, also pointing to the state’s robust testing infrastructure, improved treatment methods.
As of Monday, only about 6% of Rhode Island’s roughly 1 million residents had been fully vaccinated, which would only represent a small portion of the estimated 70% to 90% threshold needed for broad population-level immunity that would stop the virus from spreading.
Total immunity is tough to measure, and so far state health officials have not provided an estimate for Rhode Island. But the number would include Rhode Islanders who are the fully vaccinated, along with everybody who has been infected already and still has some immunity as a result.
Nearly 12% of Rhode Islanders have tested positive for the coronavirus at some point during the pandemic and many more have likely contracted the virus without ever getting tested.
There are signs that mass vaccinations have a significant effect. A new report released this week in the United Kingdom shows infections and hospitalizations falling sharply among vaccine recipients. Researchers are calling it the the first “real world” study — done on the general public rather than in scientific trials — and the clearest sign yet that the vaccines cut down on infections, hospitalizations and transmission.
No such study has been done in Rhode Island, but health officials are nonetheless bullish about cases and hospitalizations falling more quickly among the groups that were targeted first for vaccines.
“You can see significant [decreases] in the populations that we have focused on,” Alexander-Scott said.
A state analysis of weekly infections between January and February shows cases decreased quicker among the targeted groups, including health care workers (65%), long-term care facility residents (55%), Central Falls residents (64%) and adults 75 years and older (51%), compared to a statewide decline of 49% during that time.
The same analysis of hospital admissions shows the groups reported slightly larger declines than the statewide 42% decrease, with the exception of Central Falls, where hospitalizations fell by less than 5%. In a separate calculation, health officials reported that the state’s overall hospital admissions between January and February had declined faster than neighboring states and the nation.
COVID-19 deaths have tumbled in Rhode Island in nursing homes (40%) and among adults 75 years and older (51%) faster than among the broader population (22%) over the past month. Deaths decreased by less than 5% among health care workers and in Central Falls.
December and January were the second and third deadliest months during the pandemic, and a recent Target 12 analysis shows 2020 was the deadliest year since the flu pandemic of 1918.
Alexander-Scott expressed some frustration with national rankings that had triggered criticism of Rhode Island’s strategy, saying the various groups — including Harvard University and The New York Times — didn’t take into consideration improving infection and hospitalization rates that paint a better picture of Rhode Island’s efforts.
Some members of the subcommittee, a panel of mostly doctors and community leaders, likewise complained about the public frustration surrounding the state’s strategy in recent weeks.
Without providing specifics, Dr. Beth Lange of Coastal Medical suggested there was “confusion in the press” and in “small neighborhood discussions” where the rollout plan wasn’t fully understood, adding that people should be proud of how things have turned out.
“I would love for all of us to be proud of this work and send that pride out to the people of this state,” Lange said Tuesday.
Still, health officials are now quickly moving away from the targeted approach and funneling the vast majority of doses the state receives into two mass-vaccination sites in Providence and Cranston. Alexander-Scott claims the state has largely accomplished what it wanted to get done during Phase 1, and the focus now is “speed and simplicity.”
“With having enough vaccine to really roll out the mass vaccination sites, as you can see, we are well-positioned for accelerating that,” she said, highlighting how the number of daily doses administered accelerated quickly since the mass-vaccination sites opened Thursday.
Raimondo on Monday rejected the idea that the shift to a more streamlined approach of inoculating as many people as possible had anything to do with public pressure — including criticism from her soon-to-be successor Lt. Gov. Dan McKee — claiming it was all part of the overarching plan.
But there are already signs that the faster approach is complicating the state’s earlier goal of integrating socioeconomic equity into the vaccine rollout.
The Rev. Chris Abhulime of The King’s Tabernacle in Johnston said he tried to help a 65-year-old member of his church sign up for a vaccine appointment this week, but they failed because everything was booked so quickly. Abhulime said he’s concerned the process is becoming less equitable to those without access to technology, which could be especially damaging among communities of colors where vaccine uptake is already historically low.
“There is a level of a digital divide,” Abhulime said. “Even people who want to do it can’t do it because they’re not technological enough to even register.”
Dr. Sapna Chowdhry of Thundermist Health Center likewise expressed concern that the new process is hurting members of her community in Northern Rhode Island, especially in Woonsocket, where she said many of her patients cannot book online and may not have the ability to travel to the two mass-vaccination sites.
“I’m worried they’re not going to make it to Providence or Cranston,” Chowdhry said.
So far, only 3% of the state’s doses have gone into the arms of Black Rhode Islanders, even though they make up 8% of the state’s total population. Health officials argue this is because white Rhode Islanders make up more than half of health care workers and 80% of nursing home residents, which were targeted groups during Phase 1.
“As we move to an age-, risk- and geography-based strategy and contribute additional vaccine to high-density communities, the proportion of people of color vaccinated is expected to increase,” Health Department officials wrote in a presentation.
Alexander-Scott reminded people that they could register online through VaccinateRI.org, or by calling (844) 930-1779. She emphasized that targeted work would continue through municipal clinics, along with some specialty clinics set up in hard-hit and hard-to-reach neighborhoods.
Rhode Island leaders are also planning to open at least two more mass-vaccination sites in the northern and southern part of the state sometime around mid-March. A third new location on the East Bay is also being considered.
Alexander-Scott has long been a proponent of targeted health policy, such as health equity zones. And while speed has become the main focus of the state’s vaccination strategy, she said she remains committed to working toward getting vaccines into hard-to-reach communities moving forward.
“Being able to be as specific and responsible as possible across the various communities is going to be important for us,” she said.
Alexandra Leslie contributed to this story.