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R.I. union leader questions prioritization, transparency of vaccine rollout

The state will open additional clinics in high-density areas and transition Dunkin Donuts Center to vaccination clinic

People with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their direct care givers wait in the ballroom and are monitored for side effects after getting vaccinated at the Kirbrae Country Club on Thursday.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Criticism about the slow pace of Rhode Island’s vaccination rollout has garnered national attention, with the The New York Times noting that the state was the only one to have not yet expanded eligibility to older members of the public.

But Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of Rhode Island’s health department, reiterated Friday that she is laser focused on an approach that is equitable.

“We have come up against the push for speed versus equity. That ends up being at some cost to the speed dynamic,” Alexander-Scott told members of the state’s COVID-19 vaccine subcommittee during a morning meeting.


But critical information including where residents can find information on eligibility, and how to book an appointment once they are eligible to do so, are still outstanding as the health department’s vaccination website still hasn’t been launched.

The plan for the second phase of the rollout has not yet been finalized, and many in social services who provide critical care to the state’s most vulnerable children and adults wonder when they will be eligible for a vaccine.

Matthew Gunnip is the union president of SEIU Local 580, which represents more than 850 public sector employees throughout the state. Approximately 23 social workers Gunnip represents at the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals have case loads of up to 190 clients, all of which are people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Their clients live at home with family, in group homes, and in independent living and assisted living facilities.

These social workers have not seen their clients in person in almost a year, Gunnip said. With the current state of the vaccine rollout, they may have to go without in-person check-ins for even longer.

“These social workers are not being prioritized appropriately in the vaccination rollout,” said Gunnip, who listened to the subcommittee meeting on Friday. “By not seeing these people in person, as a social worker, you’re missing critical information,”


He added, “Where in the world is that ethical?”

Rhode Island adults with disabilities who live in group homes have a chance to get vaccinated at a new clinic in Lincoln, and so can their direct care staff. But adults who live at home are still part of Phase II.

Some caseworkers that work for the Department of Children, Youth and Families have been able to be vaccinated, bur Gunnip said their weekly vaccinations appointments have stopped and there has been no information about why or when the vaccine will be made available again. He said the Department of Health has offered vaccinations to their child-care licensing social worker unit, but other social service workers at the department have not been vaccinated.

Joseph Wendelken, the health department’s spokesman, did not respond to requests for comment.

Some municipal clinics at community and senior centers have already started through direct outreach efforts based on the special needs registry. Efforts to launch other vaccination clinics in more high-density communities are in progress, and will likely ramp up after Feb. 14, according to the subcommittee. These clinics will initially be driven by provider readiness and ability to quickly receive and deliver vaccine to the community.

As soon as facilities are ready and doses are available, Blackstone Valley Community Health Care in Pawtucket, Providence Community Health Centers in Providence and Cranston, and Tri-County Community Health Center in North Providence will all begin allocating doses.


Friday is also the last day that the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence will conduct COVID-19 testing. The location will soon serve as a mass vaccination site, according to the health department.

Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.