PROVIDENCE — Early vaccination rollouts for those 75 and older, a drop in early closure restrictions for businesses and a timeline for vaccinating all Rhode Island residents were all part of Rhode Island Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott’s Thursday update.
On Thursday afternoon, Alexander-Scott gave updates on the state’s vaccination rollout, restrictions on businesses and when residents will be able to get vaccinated.
COVID-19 virus positive cases dropping in RI
As of Thursday, the state’s percent positivity rate is 4.1%, down from 5% last week. “It’s exactly the direction we want to go,” Alexander-Scott said. “They’re going down and when it comes to our percent positivity and hospitalizations, we are going in the right direction.”
However, Alexander-Scott was quick to say even though the data is better, Rhode Island is not out of the woods yet.
“We are still seeing hundreds of new cases a day that keep the prevalence of COVID in our state high,” she said. “And we know that the new variant which is more contagious is already in our neighboring states. As I shared last week we need to remain vigilant in light of these facts.
That’s why we extended our current restrictions for another month. This said, we also know our business community, particularly our restaurants are really struggling and have been working so hard to continue to comply. Even as we remain vigilant to reduce spread through strong mitigation tools we know work — masking, distancing and enhanced ventilation — we have also been known to look for ways to incrementally ease the burden on the economy by incrementally reducing restrictions since the pause.”
New COVID-19 strains circulating globally, in U.S.
According to the CDC, there are multiple COVID-19 variants circulating globally and while they haven’t been found in Rhode Island, they have been found in nearby Massachusetts where two residents have tested positive for the more contagious variant of COVID-19 first detected in the United Kingdom according to Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel.
The agency says these variants spread more easily and quickly than other variants which can lead to more cases and that currently there is no evidence these variants can cause more severe illness or an increased risk of death.
Businesses, restaurants can stay open later
Following the updated guidance two weeks ago for certain youth and adult sports, on Thursday Alexander-Scott announced that effective Sunday, Jan. 31 the early closure advisory for businesses will be limited allowing restaurants and other establishments currently limited by the early closure advisory to remain open later. They will still have to follow other current restrictions including the closure of bar areas which must remain but they will no longer need to close at 10 p.m. on weekdays and 10:30 p.m. on weekends.
“We hope that this will provide business owners with some flexibility and relief but we need Rhode Islanders to continue following the rules,” she said.
Slow vaccination rollout expected to gain speed soon
A total of 86,315 doses have been administered in Rhode Island. Of those, there are 64,435 first dose administered and 21,880 second doses.
“As I have said in past weeks we are overall in a good place and have a strong system in place,” Alexander-Scott said. “The CDC continues to publish rankings for states for doses administered. Rhode Island is close to the total average of total doses administered per capita and we are just outside the top 10 nationally for second doses administered.”
Alexander-Scott said while state officials want as many doses of the vaccine administered as quickly as possible, speed is only one of the measures of success in their priority. “In addition to how many people you vaccinate, who you vaccinate matters,” she said. “And that’s what distinguishes Rhode Island and how we are taking this thoughtful approach.”
The state is being strategic in who they are vaccinating because they have very limited supply according to Alexander-Scott.
“There are specific aims for the first phase of our vaccination campaign — ensuring the stability of the hospitals and health care systems, and protecting the residents of nursing homes and other congregate living facilities.”
Alexander-Scott said that means going to each nursing home and each assisted living facility in the state. It also means working through employers to get emergency medical services personnel and public safety workers scheduled for their shots. That also means getting very specific types of out-patient health care providers vaccinated.
“When you bring vaccinations to people in congregate settings and when you are coordinating vaccinations through peoples’ employers, that takes a little more time than opening a large clinic at a public site somewhere,” she said.
On the issue of timing and how quickly doses are administered, Alexander-Scott said the good news is that Rhode Island is very close to starting the portion of its vaccination campaign that will focus primarily on age. She said this approach is much less complicated and means vaccines will get administered more quickly.
Vaccinations for vulnerable 75 and older start this weekend
Starting this weekend some limited vaccinations will be offered for individuals age 75 and older at the state’s five regional clinics. Alexander-Scott said that’s roughly 5,000 doses. These individuals are those who are on the emergency registry at the Rhode Island Department of Public Health. This is the registry people signed up for who need extra help during an emergency. The state will be using that existing list to do these initial vaccinations.
“The people in that registry will be getting contacted directly,” Alexander-Scott said. “We expect in two weeks, additional people who are 75 and older will be able to start registering. We have already started with 75 and older and now we will continue to roll out what’s needed to get the remaining 75 and older individuals vaccinated.”
When additional vaccines are available, Alexander-Scott said messaging will be shared through local media and community organizations to help folks know how to sign up.
Locally in Warwick, Mayor Frank Picozzi announced Thursday that the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine will be available to close to 400 Warwick residents who are 75 and older from Monday, Feb. 1 to Wednesday, Feb. 3. at the Swift Community Center in East Greenwich.
Residents can register on the city’s website warwickri.gov or clicking on the direct link: warwickri.gov/vaccine starting at 2 p.m. Thursday. The early registrations were all taken within the first two hours, Warwick officials report.
Picozzi said he expects the vaccine to be distributed to the rest of the city’s age 75 and older population in larger quantities later next month.
The Next Phases for Vaccinations
The next phase of the state’s vaccination campaign will likely start in mid-February if the state continues with the current level of vaccine supply. While the first phase of vaccinations focused on the stability of the state’s health care system, as well as protecting residents of nursing homes and other congregate settings, the next phase aims to protect those most at risk of hospitalizations and death from COVID-19.
Alexander-Scott said access to the vaccine will depend on three factors: age, high-risk conditions and geography “This is a crucial point,” she said. “The vaccines have shown to be effective in decreasing hospitalizations. We want to make sure that we are targeted in getting at the individuals who are at the highest risk for both hospitalizations and for death. We want to do that so we don’t overwhelm our hospital system and so we can more aggressively reopen our economy.”
Following that, all Rhode Island residents ages 65-74 years of age will be vaccinated. Alexander-Scott said she expects those vaccinations to begin in mid-February based on the supply coming in.
As more vaccines become available, residents will be eligible in the following order:
- Ages 60-64
- Ages 50-59
- Ages 40-49
- Ages 16-39
“It’s important to note we will not wait until we finished vaccinating everyone in that age range before moving on to the next age group,” Alexander-Scott said.
Another priority in the vaccination timeline is based on geography in communities hardest hit by the virus and at a higher risk of hospitalization and death. That includes Central Falls, parts of Pawtucket, parts of North Providence, Providence and Cranston.
Reporters at Thursday’s press conference asked about the priority of vaccinating teachers. Alexander-Scott said 58% of kindergarten through grade 12 teachers are either 55 or older, living in a community harder hit by COVID for have one of the high-risk conditions.
“Although the data made clear that schools are not higher risk we all recognize how important it is to get teachers and all of Rhode Island vaccinated as quickly as possible,” she said. “What we want to do is do it as effectively as possible given the supply we have.”