PROVIDENCE — After weeks of criticism of the state’s lack of communication and online system for finding COVID-19 vaccines, Rhode Island health officials finally unveiled a web portal Wednesday where residents can sign up for a vaccine at a state-run mass vaccination clinic.
The new website, VaccinateRI.org, allows eligible residents to book an appointment for a shot at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence or the former Citizens Bank headquarters on Sockanosset Cross Road in Cranston.
Both locations, run by the Rhode Island Department of Health, open Thursday. The first group of residents who can make appointments are those 75 and older. Starting Monday, scheduling will be open to any Rhode Islander who is 65 and older.
The Dunkin’ Donuts Center will start out administering 500 doses per day and the Cranston location will administer 900 doses per day, according to health department spokesman Joseph Wendelken. The website will have two weeks’ worth of slots available to seniors. Wendelken said he expects those numbers to double at each location in the next few weeks.
Within three hours of the registration link open, there were no available appointments left for Thursday in Cranston while more than 300 were still available in Providence. By evening, there were no appointments available at either location, according to the website.
The state also announced an automated hotline (844-930-1779) to coincide with the new website, which residents can call for help with vaccine reservations. The state said it will be specifically helpful for residents over the age of 75 who have difficulty booking an appointment online.
The call center will be open on weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. and on weekends from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Appointments are currently available through Feb. 27 and are expected to fill up quickly. Additional appointments may be added as slots open.
“Vaccinating in this way is faster and less operationally complex,” Wendelken said. “When these sites are open, we fully expect that our administration rate will rapidly improve.”
Additional mass vaccination sites will open when supply shipments to the state increase, he said.
Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the health department, said Wednesday that Rhode Island will receive a slight bump in vaccine shipments. For the past several weeks, Rhode Island has received a weekly allocation of 16,000 first doses per week. For the next three weeks, the state will receive approximately 22,000 first doses per week. Part of this, she said, is because there is an actual increase of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, but also because Pfizer has increased the number of doses that will fit in each vial from five to six.
Between the dose increases, opening of mass vaccination centers, and the state moving from a targeted approach of who is eligible to a more age-based approach, Alexander-Scott said vaccinations will “significantly accelerate.”
Alexander-Scott said because the demand for vaccines is so high, some people may still find it difficult to book an appointment through the state.
“More appointments will be added as we go,” she said. “But we are asking people to be patient.”
The news comes as seniors in Rhode Island have struggled to book vaccine appointments for weeks, calling local senior centers and navigating a maze of forms on various websites for slots at Walgreens or CVS Health retail locations. In many cases, appointment slots were booked quickly and many seniors were left frustrated by the technology.
It hasn’t helped that not all communities in Rhode Island have rolled out vaccines in the same way. Most are allowing residents over the age of 75 to get vaccines, but some towns, like East Greenwich, are encouraging residents older than 65 to call the recreation center for information. In Foster, residents over the age of 60 are being asked to e-mail the director of human and senior services to get on a notification list.
Without a consistent message from the state, many seniors and their families have been left confused. Alexander-Scott said that eventually, there will be a one-stop website for registration in Rhode Island that will hold information about both community-run clinics and state-run clinics. That site, she said, could be up at some point in March, after municipalities vaccinate the majority of their residents who are 75 and older. But residents looking to get vaccinated at a retail pharmacy will still have to go to that company’s website.
People younger than 65 who can’t book an appointment yet can add their contact information to a vaccine notification list to get notified when they do become eligible. However, enrolling in this list does not guarantee an appointment for a vaccine, according to state health officials.
Other states such as Tennessee and West Virginia have similar notification signups, but take it a step further: Residents not only are notified when they become eligible, but also get an e-mail or phone call telling them when a dose is available at a nearby location. Alexander-Scott said that at this time, the notification list in Rhode Island is only for communication purposes, and will not direct people to a dose near them.
When asked why it took so long for the notification sign-up form to come out, she said time was needed to build the site.
Rhode Island’s unveiling of the new sites comes as Lieutenant Governor Daniel McKee criticized the state’s vaccine distribution plan earlier this week after a new report by The New York Times showed Rhode Island with the lowest vaccination rate of all 50 states.
But Audrey Lucas, Governor Gina M. Raimondo’s spokeswoman, said the targeted approach that Rhode Island has taken has resulted in a significantly higher reduction in hospitalizations compared to neighboring states. Lucas said that from January to February, Rhode Island saw a 46 percent decline in hospitalizations compared to a 32 percent drop nationally, and a 22 percent average decline among neighboring states.
“With the success of Phase 1 in shoring up our health care system, and the ability for speed and scale in Phase 2, Rhode Island is well-positioned to stay ahead of COVID-19,” Raimondo said in a statement Wednesday.
As of mid-afternoon on Wednesday, the health department said 1,131 appointments were booked at the mass vaccination clinics; 86 were scheduled over the phone and the rest online.