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CORONAVIRUS

Lifespan to vaccinate immunosuppressed R.I. residents age 16 and older

Rhode Island has not yet made these residents eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at state-run vaccination sites

A exterior of the Miriam Hospital, which is owned by LIfespan Corporation.
A exterior of the Miriam Hospital, which is owned by LIfespan Corporation.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Islanders who are over the age of 16 and have specific underlying conditions can now book a COVID-19 vaccine appointment with clinics at Lifespan, despite not yet being eligible under state guidelines.

Lifespan, which received a limited supply of COVID-19 vaccines from the state, posted on their website that those Rhode Islanders over 65 years old, are on a transplant waiting list, or are over the age of 16 and immunosuppressed; can book an appointment on Lifespan’s vaccine portal or by calling 401-475-7468.

Those who fall under the “immunosuppressed” category, as defined by the state health department, include people with cancer, people who receive chemotherapy or radiation therapy, those who have had a transplant or are waiting for one, people who have been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, those with sickle cell disease, people who have a disease or take medication that weakens the immune system, and people who are pregnant.

The hospital system, which is the largest health care system in the state, wrote on their website that these conditions of eligibility meet guidelines by the Rhode Island Department of Health. However, they do not.

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The state has only opened vaccine eligibility to residents who are older than 65, and most recently, teachers, school-related staff, and child care providers. In some communities, like specific zip codes of Providence, residents over 50 can start booking appointments. But the state has yet to indicate exactly when eligibility will open for those with underlying health conditions. Each time the Globe has asked the state for a specific date or timeline, they have answered by saying those with underlying conditions will become eligible in “mid-March.”

Joseph Wendelken, a spokesman for the state health department, told a Globe reporter Thursday night that he could not confirm when eligibility will open for residents with medical issues or when an announcement might be made.

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“We have not made any new announcements about the eligibility timeline, beyond what we’ve already said about being on schedule for mid-March for the next groups,” said Wendelken in an email.

According to Lifespan’s website, patients will have to show proof of age and residence when they arrive for their vaccine appointment, and will not be able to receive a vaccine if they do not meet the criteria set by the state health department. This is in direct contrast with the state’s vaccine procedures.

State health officials have previously said that residents will not be asked to show identification, proof of insurance, or medical records as evidence of any underlying health conditions when they become eligible at mass vaccination sites, which are run by state agencies such as the health department and Rhode Island National Guard.

This is not the first time that a non-governmental organization has made some groups eligible for the vaccine that the state has not.

Wendelken said the state has “general guidelines.”

“However, there is flexibility on those guidelines in specific settings and communities,” in an email to a Globe reporter. “We are not yet vaccinating people statewide with underlying health conditions. However, the hospitals have been given latitude to vaccinate people from higher risk communities, and certain patients who have a very narrow window to get vaccinated.”

Wendelken said patients, for example, who have cancer or another underlying medical condition in which the patent will be immunosuppressed during a specific time period and should be vaccinated in a timeframe where the vaccine will be most effective.

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A spokeswoman at Lifespan told a Globe reporter Thursday that the hospital system had tried to fill appointments for those 65 and older through numerous outreach campaigns, but that clinics were not filling up. Now that the system has broadened eligibility, residents have filled appointment slots.

But last week, CVS retail pharmacies aligned the company’s eligibility guidelines with federal directives and allowed teachers, school staff, and childcare providers to start booking vaccine appointments before the state made them eligible. In Rhode Island, CVS pharmacies receive vaccine doses from both the state and the federal government, but only doses from the federal government were reserved for educators, according to Wendelken.

Days later, Walgreens pharmacies in Rhode Island also started including educators and associated staff in their eligibility criteria. It’s unclear where doses at Walgreens locations were coming from. Wendelken said Monday the company received doses from the federal government; however, Rebekah Pajak, a spokeswoman for Walgreens, told the Globe that the company does not.

“Confirming only state allocation at this time.” Pajak told a Globe reporter.

Walgreens issued a national statement later in the week, saying they were also part of the Federal partnership program in Rhode Island, but had started more recently than CVS.

Pajak said scheduling for Walgreens’ federal allocation in Rhode Island started Thursday morning for appointments that will begin Friday.

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