COVID-19 vaccine committee: R.I. needs to make clear why some people are getting vaccine first

THE RHODE ISLAND Vaccine Advisory Committee talked Friday about how to improve public communications about the vaccine, and the order in which it will be administered. / COURTESY R.I. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH

PROVIDENCE Members of a COVID-19 vaccine advisory group said Friday they need more advance notice of distribution plans to better inform the public, and the state needs to make more clear why some people are getting vaccinations before others.

The advisory committee, which reports to the R.I. Department of Health, meets weekly. In its Zoom conference Friday morning, the Rhode Island Vaccine Advisory Committee addressed the equity considerations for vaccine administration and initial planning for the Phase 2 population, which will include school teachers and staff.

Much of the discussion centered around how the state is communicating to the public the order in which priority groups of people will receive the vaccinations. People are making calls to primary care physicians, who do not have the shots, and asking why prisoners, for example, are already receiving their vaccinations, said committee members.

The state needs to be more clear so the public understands the rationale for the vaccine distribution, they said.

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Rhode Island remains in the initial stages of its first phase of the rollout because it is only receiving about 14,000 doses a week, much lower than demand. Although the two available vaccines one manufactured by Moderna Inc. and another by Pfizer/BioNTech require two doses, the federal government is already holding in reserve the second dose, so every dose received by Rhode Island can be used for a first vaccination, according to McKenzie Morton, the committee’s facilitator.

As of Tuesday, 26,163 vaccine doses had been administered in the state. Forty-two providers, or locations, are administering the doses.

Phase 2, which will include teachers, is not going to start for several more months because of the slow delivery of vaccine. But once it starts, vaccine committee members said, staff and parents will need to understand why some teachers and staff and some schools will receive their shots before others.

The decision on priority will have to be made among several variables, such age and where the people are working, depending on risk of infection and other factors, said Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, representing Care New England. “Once you start vaccinating one occupation, then all of the people in the state who have that occupation are going to start to feel they are being discriminated against, unless you are able to make that message clear to the entire state. ‘This is the reason why we are choosing to vaccinate this school, and these other schools are not going to be vaccinated.’ We’re vaccinating workers in this occupation, in this region, and make it clear. As we move forward, we are going to have increasing frustration among people who feel they should be in line for the vaccine.”

Of the Phase 1 population groups, none are completed. Vaccinations are in progress for employee groups including hospital workers, emergency medical service workers, home health aides and Hospice employees, community health center employees, urgent care and respiratory clinic workers and firefighters, police, and corrections officers. Other groups that have started receiving the shots include Central Falls residents, including elderly high-rise residents, and high-risk, incarcerated people.

The groups next up: people who collect COVID-19 test samples, pharmacists, long-term care facility staff and residents, people in assisted living, elderly housing, and the COVID testing lab staff. Vaccine doses have been allocated for these groups but the shots haven’t begun.

And that’s very frustrating for many people, according to committee members.

There is confusion among family members and employees in long-term care facilities, about why those populations haven’t received the vaccine yet, while other groups such as the high-risk, prison population and Central Falls residents have started to get shots, said Kathy Heren, Rhode Island’s long-term care ombudsman.

“They’re very resentful of the fact that the assisted living group is waiting as compared to vaccinating Central Falls and the prisons,” she said. “What I’ve tried to explain to them is there is no easy answer in a pandemic.”

The state is prioritizing people who have the most risk from exposure, either through age, occupation or living situation. Central Falls, in particular, was identified as a high-risk community because of its high infection and hospitalization rates, compared to other areas.

“People just want to get vaccinated,” Heren said. “I’ve tried to explain to them, it has to be done on a basis that is fair and which [reduces] the risk of spreading it all around. It’s been difficult.”

Mary MacDonald is a staff writer for the PBN. Contact her at

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  1. Ridiculous thinking. The goal should be to prevent death not necessarily getting the infection rate down. So the KPI should be the number of deaths and the death rate. Drive that number down should be the measure of success. The easiest and most equitable approach would be to focus on age – the least disputable factor that can lead to death. Age is the easiest to verify. We are over complicating this. Start with the oldest across the state and work your way down….no matter the profession, no matter your ethnicity, no matter your economic status, no matter your profession. To me that’s fair, equitable, understandable and easiest to administer. Hopefully the new Governor is listening.