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How Rhode Island went from best in COVID-19 testing to worst in vaccine distribution

State leaders say their strategy prioritized inoculating health care workers and nursing home residents

Pharmacy student Kayla Sepe helped to vaccinate almost 700 people throughout the day at Central Falls High School in Central Falls, R.I. on Feb. 13.JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

PROVIDENCE — State health officials were flying high on Dec. 14 when Rhode Island received its first batch of the COVID-19 vaccine, a few hours earlier than expected.

The hospital group Lifespan quickly announced that Colombian-born Dr. Christian Arbelaez would be among the first people in the region to receive the vaccine. MSNBC carried the shot live, and Arbelaez said that he especially wanted the hard-hit Latino community to know the shot was painless and the vaccine was safe.

Later in the week, Dr. Philip Chan, an infectious disease specialist, told Rhode Islanders the state was having an “enormously successful first week” with vaccine distribution.


Two months later, that success has turned to frustration and embarrassment.

Considering that Rhode Island led most of the country throughout much of the pandemic when it came to testing for the coronavirus, there was good reason to believe the state could operate an efficient vaccination program.

But today, Rhode Island ranks among the worst states in the country for percentage of vaccine doses administered (62 percent) and percentage of residents who have received their first dose (9.2 percent), according to The New York Times.

By comparison, three states — West Virginia, New Mexico, and North Dakota — have used more than 95 percent of the available doses, and at least 12 percent of residents in 17 states and Washington, D.C., have received their first dose.

Rhode Island leaders said the state’s poor results, which have been persistent for several weeks, can be attributed to a strategy that focused on vaccinating health care workers and nursing home residents first. But municipal leaders, incoming governor Daniel McKee, and some residents said they have been confused about the rollout of the program.

“Like most Rhode Islanders, I am not satisfied with the current administration’s progress on vaccine distribution, especially as we see our neighbors in Connecticut ranked among the top in the nation,” McKee said Monday.


McKee, a Democrat, vowed to “immediately expand” Rhode Island’s vaccine distribution capacity once he is sworn in to replace Governor Gina Raimondo, who is set to join President Joe Biden’s administration as secretary of commerce.

Health officials maintain that Rhode Island continues to face a supply-and-demand problem, and say the state is still receiving only about 16,000 doses a week.

Dr. James McDonald, medical director at the Department of Health, said having a finite number of doses forced the state to be “purposeful and deliberative” with distribution. That’s why the first wave of the vaccine went to health care workers and nursing home residents. He said Rhode Island’s approach contrasts with those of other states.

“Our approach has been very much about the who, the high-risk individuals and health care workers, as opposed to first-come, first-served,” McDonald said.

“It doesn’t surprise me that in the beginning, the numbers look different than in the other states,” he said. But he stressed that Rhode Island has seen hospitalizations drop 46 percent since January, and overall cases continue to decline. He said that cases among health care workers have dropped 66 percent since they started getting the vaccine.

Still, Raimondo has spent much of the pandemic citing touting Rhode Island as a leader.

It was one of the most aggressive states in the country when it came to testing and has remained a leader in testing per capita. Raimondo was proud that she was among the first governors in the country to implement a distance-learning program last spring, and she was more insistent than other governors in the region about getting students back to classrooms in the fall.


When cases spiked again in November, Rhode Island also led the country in new cases per capita, which sparked fear the state could run out of hospital beds. Raimondo implemented new restrictions, forcing restaurants to close early and requiring that social gatherings be limited to single households during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The vaccine, Raimondo said, would help residents see light at the end of the tunnel. While the first phase of distribution focused on health workers, nursing home residents, and, to some degree, residents of hard-hit Central Falls, the state started vaccinating all residents older than 75 earlier this month. McDonald said an announcement for residents 65 and up could come as soon as this week.

Warwick Mayor Frank Picozzi is among the municipal leaders who say the initial vaccine rollout was disorganized, and that it led to city and town halls being flooded with questions.

“They were just looking for some direction,” Picozzi said of his constituents. “There’s a lot of fear; a lot of people are anxious.”

Picozzi said things have gone more smoothly since McKee started connecting with municipal leaders this month — the incoming governor has also created his own vaccine advisory team — but acknowledged the demand still outweighs the supply.


Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, predicted on MSNBC this week that “we’re going to have more vaccines than people who want them” by May, and McDonald said that timeline could come even sooner in Rhode Island.

“I really think that two months from now, there’s s going to be so much vaccine that we’re going to be able to open it up for anyone who wants it,” McDonald said.

Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.