PROVIDENCE — Public health officials on Tuesday began answering the question that many Rhode Islanders are asking: When can I get the COVID-19 vaccine?
Since administering its first vaccine 15 days ago, the state has received 30,700 doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccine, and as of Tuesday morning 12,869 Rhode Island had been vaccinated, officials said during a Zoom news conference.
Over the next two months or so, about 150,000 of the state’s 1 million residents will get the vaccine as part of the first phase of the state four-phase roll-out.
“Vaccination is happening slowly because we are only getting a limited amount of vaccine each week, and even that can change,” said Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the state Department of Health. She explained that the state receives approximately 14,000 doses — enough to vaccinate about 1.5 percent of the state’s population — each week. “But we have been able to adapt effectively and ensure that the vaccines we are receiving are being distributed to the people intended quickly and efficiently,” she added.
Officials explained that people who qualify for the first phase of the state’s vaccine roll-out fall into five tiers. The first includes hospital staff, emergency medical personnel, home health care workers, hospice workers, plus nursing home staff and residents.
The second tier includes community health center staff, COVID-19 vaccinators and specimen collectors, urgent care staff, respiratory clinic staff, pharmacists, prison medical staff and high-risk prisoners, plus residents of long-term-care facilities.
The third tier includes firefighters, police officers, COVID-19 testing lab staff, public health workers, and residents of “hard-hit communities.”
Officials said the first hard-hit community to receive the vaccine will be Central Falls, the 1.3-square-mile city of some 19,400 people that has by far had the highest infection rate in the state since the pandemic began. Vaccinations will begin in Central Falls on Wednesday.
“We have included our communities hardest hit as its own entity within Phase 1,” Alexander-Scott said. “We are starting with Central Falls and working closely with municipal leadership there to be able to incorporate individuals who are outside of, say, a nursing home or one of the other high-risk employment settings.”
She said the state will then look to prioritize other ZIP codes where the virus has been widespread. She noted that some of the hardest-hit areas outside of Central Falls include parts of in Providence and Pawtucket; those areas could be incorporated into the first or second phase of the vaccine program, depending on how much vaccine comes to the state, she said.
In determining which communities will get priority, the state will look at the rate of COVID-19 cases, the percentage of those who test positive, and the hospitalization rate, she said, and will take into account the disproportionate toll the virus has taken on Latino and Black residents.
“Equity is a key priority throughout,” Alexander-Scott said. “We are planning to vaccinate broadly in our harder-hit communities early on, such as in Central Falls.”
Also, she said said the state will take “an equity approach” by vaccinating about half of the nursing homes in Providence, Pawtucket, and Central Falls during the first week of nursing home vaccinations.
The fourth tier of the first phase will include primary care doctors, dentists, funeral home workers, and blood and organ donation staff.
The fifth tier of the first phase will include people older than 75.
Alexander-Scott said there will be overlap in the five tiers, meaning that the state won’t wait until everyone in one tier is vaccinated before moving on to the next tier. For example, she said, “We will not be finished vaccinating nursing home residents and workers before we start vaccinating EMS, first-responders, corrections staff, and others.”
Those decisions will be based on how much vaccine is available and the logistics of getting it to high-risk groups as quickly as possible, she said.
Alysia Mihalakos, chief of the Health Department’s Center for Emergency Preparedness and Response, said the state opened regional dispensing pods on Monday, providing the vaccine to EMS workers, home health and hospice workers, plus police and firefighters. A total of 1,185 people received vaccines at the five regional pods, she said.
Meanwhile, CVS and Walgreens provided a total of 783 vaccines to nursing home residents and staff throughout the state, she said.
“We are really excited about the number of people who are getting protected,” Mihalakos said. “And we expect that with the vaccine we receive this week, we will have made a significant dent.”
On Monday, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, Dr. Ashish Jha, took to Twitter to decry the “slow vaccine rollout” throughout the nation. “Personally, I’m incredibly frustrated,” wrote Jha, one of the most-quoted public health experts throughout the pandemic. “Did we not know that vaccines were coming? Is vaccine administration a surprise?”
On the state level, most health departments of health are already strained and overburdened, but they are still trying to make a plan — despite a lack of resources and assistance from the federal government, Jha wrote.
When asked about Jha’s comments, Mihalakos said, “There were a lot of dreams – there was certainly a very loft goal set by Operation Warp Speed that we would have I believe 100 million doses (nationally) by January, and I believe we are at about 20 million doses at this point in time.”
Rhode Island is expecting a steady supply of vaccine over the next few months, she said. “We are hoping Moderna and Pfizer will be able to continually enhance their manufacturing capacity now that they full-blown up and running and able to produce more vaccine on a weekly basis.”
Governor Gina M. Raimondo has not been vaccinated yet but will likely get it during the second phase of the vaccine program as part of the “critical infrastructure” category, Mihalakos said.
“She has been very vocal about that — that this is the time for front-line health care workers, this is the time for nursing home residents and other congregate setting residents who are at the highest risk,” she said.