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Rhode Islanders with underlying conditions are still waiting to get vaccinated

For people with certain medical conditions, contracting COVID-19 could be deadly. But they’re still not yet eligible for the vaccine.

Jane Matheson, 63,  learned to play guitar three years ago while she was stuck at home recovering from a surgery, she said that playing it helps her to manage her anxiety. Matheson has Stage 4 breast cancer and is finding it difficult to find information about vaccinations and when she will become eligible.
Jane Matheson, 63, learned to play guitar three years ago while she was stuck at home recovering from a surgery, she said that playing it helps her to manage her anxiety. Matheson has Stage 4 breast cancer and is finding it difficult to find information about vaccinations and when she will become eligible.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

NORTH PROVIDENCE, R.I. — No matter whether she is going to the hospital or if she’s waiting at home for her visiting nurse, Jane Matheson, 63, is getting all decked out. She takes the time to pick out a funky outfit, dangling earrings, eye glasses with blue frames, stacked rings, and a wrist-full of jingling bracelets that glide along the Bruce Springsteen lyrics she has tattooed on her forearm.

“I have to look good,” she said. “I have to show them that I’m not sickly.”

Matheson, of North Providence, has stage four metastatic breast cancer, a disease she has been relentlessly battling since 2009. Her doctor’s gave her a life expectancy of two to five years back in 2018.

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“But I’ll show them,” she quipped.

She’s taken precautions since the start of the pandemic. She’s mindful of how often she leaves her house, has her groceries delivered, and is sticking to a small circle of close contacts who take the same precautions.

“I try to get out. But I know my limits,” she said.

No matter how much energy she has, if she were to contract COVID-19, the effects would likely be deadly. And yet, under Rhode Island’s vaccine campaign governing who is eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, Matheson doesn’t yet qualify. Even though Rhode Island has started the second phase of its vaccine plan, individuals with certain pre-existing conditions still have to wait a few more weeks to become eligible.

Jane Matheson, 63, points to a tattoo of lyrics from a Bruce Springsteen song that reads, "You know I like that empty road/No place to be but miles to go/But miles to go is miles away..."
Jane Matheson, 63, points to a tattoo of lyrics from a Bruce Springsteen song that reads, "You know I like that empty road/No place to be but miles to go/But miles to go is miles away..." Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Those certain conditions, listed by the Rhode Island Department of Health, include cancer, HIV/AIDS, kidney disease, heart disease, Down Syndrome, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, cystic fibrosis, significantly decreased lung function, diabetes, and sickle cell disease. Also on the list: people who have had a transplant or are waiting for one, and people who are pregnant. According to state health officials, there are no plans to update this list in the near future.

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This list was originally created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a living document with the intention of vaccinating those adults who are at increased risk of severe illness from the virus that causes COVID-19. On the CDC’s website, obesity, severe obesity, and current and former cigarette smokers are also listed.

Yet, unlike the state’s overall vaccination plan, everyone from 16 years old to 64 years old with various medical conditions will become eligible all at once during sometime in mid-March, according to Joseph Wendelken, the spokesman for the state health department. At the same time, those without underlying health issues who are 60 to 64 will also become eligible to start scheduling appointments.

But Wendelken said that just because they are eligible, “does not mean that appointments will be available right away.”

Since seniors over the age of 75 started scheduling appointments for the vaccine, demand has severely outweighed supply. Given the glitchy sign-up forms and a multitude of websites, it may be tough for Rhode Islanders with comorbidities to find an appointment.

“I’m lumped in with everyone. Everyone is going to be looking for an appointment at once,” said Matheson, who previously tried calling the health department’s vaccine hotline for information to only get told she was not yet eligible. She’s also tried reaching out to her municipal clinic, located in a nearby school, but there, too, she wasn’t given any further information.

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She finally signed up for the state’s vaccine notification list, which was provided to her by a Globe reporter, but has yet to hear anything.

When she does become eligible, there’s another issue to consider: Like Massachusetts, Rhode Island is not requiring proof that residents who are signing up for a vaccine also have medical conditions — they’re relying on the honor system. In Massachusetts, where some people with two or more underlying health conditions became eligible in mid-February, some health care providers reportedly spotted line cutters, and are calling for people to wait their turn.

The situation makes Jon Tyler, 48, incredibly frustrated. He has two underlying health conditions that would make him qualified for this “early vaccination.” If he were to travel the six miles it would take to reach the Massachusetts-Rhode Island border, he would be eligible to receive the vaccine.

“I watch people that are close to my age, with pre-existing conditions in other states getting the shot and I wish it was me,” said Tyler, who lives in Bristol and works in sales. “There’s so much news about vaccines all around me, but it’s still untouchable for me.”

He added, “It’s bothersome when you dwell on it.”

The race to achieve herd immunity through vaccination will continue to be a challenge, and one that will be analyzed critically for years to come, says Dr. Kirsten Hokeness, chairwoman of the science and technology department at Bryant University.

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“On one hand we would like to establish the fastest route to vaccinations to secure that coveted herd immunity,” said Hokeness. “On the other hand, we should be mindful of equitable distribution and target those at highest risk first. I do not think there is a right answer to this in terms of distribution.”

Hokeness said that while the state is limited in terms of the amount of vaccine it gets, which helps determine the rate of distribution, she said it would likely be beneficial to make the vaccine immediately available to those who fall into the high-risk category due to underlying health conditions.

“This would help to balance the fast route to vaccination while still ensuring that those at highest risk for severe infection remain at the head of the schedule,” said Hokeness.

Until he becomes eligible, Tyler said the weight of the past year is wearing on him.

“The thought of me having to wait anymore to get vaccinated is daunting,” said Tyler. “I just want to taste what normalcy is like again. And to know that I’m safe.”


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