PROVIDENCE — Without a clear communication strategy from the state, supply chain issues, and hundreds of eligible residents failing to successfully book an appointment, Rhode Islanders are growing increasingly frustrated with how the state has handled its vaccine rollout.
Dr. Philip Chan, consultant medical director with Rhode Island’s health department, said the state will soon be unveiling tools to a more unifying message. And like many other aspects of the pandemic, such as testing and contact tracing efforts, Rhode Island has had to work through strategies to mitigate COVID-19 on its own, with limited resources and guidance from the federal government.
“We hear people’s frustrations,” he told the Globe on Thursday. “We’re a year into the pandemic and we’re still playing catch up.”
Chan, who also teaches at Brown University, said the aggravation might soon be over when state’s Department of Health makes its highly anticipated vaccination website public so that residents can book appointments through the state.
The vaccination portal and hotline will be live by Feb. 17, according to Joseph Wendelken, the health department’s spokesperson.
But some local public health leaders say the vaccine portal and hotline should have come long ago, before the vaccine became more broadly open to Rhode Island’s aging population.
Here’s how they would grade the state on its rollout strategy.
Dr. Kirsten Hokeness, Bryant University
Dr. Kirsten Hokeness, chairwoman of the science and technology department at Bryant University, recently co-wrote an article about communication in vaccine campaigns. She said a lot could go wrong during the entire process, from manufacturing the vaccine to allocating doses. And while vaccinating people against COVID-19 isn’t a Rhode Island-specific issue, she said the state needs to increase its transparency and communication strategy.
“There’s a lot of serious issues right now,” said Hokeness. “There’s no central sign up. Towns and companies all have their own registration link and they all have different mechanisms. This is just a communication breakdown.”
And while the health department said they focusing on equity as they allocate doses, Hokeness said it’s a dangerous balancing act when there are highly contagious variants in nearby states.
“Speed is falling to the wayside. We need to get as many people vaccinated in the public, and as fast as possible,” she said. “This is extremely anxiety provoking, especially for seniors.”
Rhode Island should be using it’s small size to its advantage during the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, she said. But it is not.
“This isn’t a large state where we need to reach people in rural parts,” said Hokeness. “We’re a small state and we should be doing better.”
Dr. Paul Larrat, University of Rhode Island
GRADE: B / B+
Dr. Paul Larrat is the dean of University of Rhode Island’s College of Pharmacy, where he and several hundred students are volunteering to help immunize residents. But he gets a lot of questions: Do we have enough clinics and people to immunize Rhode Islanders? And do we have enough doses? The latter, he said, is tougher to answer.
While younger generations are able communicate and receive information through various websites and sign-up boards, he said people over the age of 75 are struggling, especially when there are questions regarding the supply chain.
Last weekend, through a state partnership with CVS Health, seniors tried to sign up for appointments but technology made it difficult for them. While individual cities and towns are trying to communicate with their oldest residents, some feel as though they are going to fall through the cracks.
“We’ve missed people. Not sure how we’ll fix that,” said Larrat. “But we’re learning as we go.”
Dr. Suzanne Carr, Community College of Rhode Island
GRADE: C+ / B-
Dr. Suzanne Carr is the dean of health and rehabilitation services at the Community College of Rhode Island. She says the state has done a fairly good job on developing a phased plan on when people become eligible, but that there’s a socio-economic gap.
“Not everyone has a computer. And some people don’t have access to get from one place to another, and they don’t even know how to start planning,” said Carr. She pointed out that the state hasn’t announced the locations of all of its vaccine clinics so people can’t begin planning for transportation. “There’s too many unknowns,” she said.
The state’s communication so far, Carr said, is “below the bar.” She said she hopes residents do not get discouraged while the state looks to improve.
“There is going to be an inconvenience factor, but we need to keep our end goal in mind,” she said.
Chris Ferreira, Bryant University
Christopher Ferreira is the director of clinical education in the physician assistant program at Bryant University. He said the country’s willingness to focus on the rapid development and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine over the last year could potentially change vaccines in America for the long term.
As a health care worker, he said the communication and sign up to get vaccinated was easy and comprehensive. And while the state’s messages to the general public have been shaky over the last couple of months, he says there is promise in the new CVS Health partnership with the federal government, which will increase the number of doses coming to the state. In addition, the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence will soon open as a mass vaccination center where hundreds of people should be able to get vaccinated each hour.
“It looks like the numbers will increase soon,” he said. “But we can only get doses as fast as the federal government sends them to us.”
He noted the lack of a centralized system for signing up for vaccines, and gave the state a B-, which allegedly included “effort.”
He added, “I’m being generous.”