Nonprofits eye boost from vaccine incentive program

PROVIDENCE – Rhode Island Free Clinic CEO Marie Ghazal has seen COVID-19, and the state’s response, from all angles for more than a year.

The leader of the local health care nonprofit has helped multiple residents with low incomes to get tested for the coronavirus, as well as get them vaccinated to combat the pandemic since its emergence in March 2020. Ghazal, who had her own bout with COVID-19, has also faced struggles convincing people to get vaccinated.

“We’re a volunteer-based model. When COVID-19 hit, there weren’t many people willing to volunteer,” Ghazal said. “Now, we’re trying to bring things back to where we were before with our operations. We had to hire a few people because we didn’t have the volunteers to keep things going.”

Such grassroots nonprofits have been on the front lines in combating the pandemic despite limited operating budgets and not being eligible for federal COVID-19 relief funding. A new program announced earlier this week recognizes that and is counting on those community connections to help boost vaccination rates across the state.

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Gov. Daniel J. McKee on July 6 announced that his office, the R.I. Department of Health and the Rhode Island Foundation will award $750,000 in grants to nonprofits over the course of five rounds. Each round will take place every time 5,000 first vaccine doses are administered across Rhode Island. Eligible nonprofits will be awarded $10,000 in each round.

Unlike other states, such as Massachusetts, where individuals getting vaccinated are directly incentivized by having a chance at winning prize money, Rhode Island took a different approach to encourage the community to get vaccinated in support of the local nonprofit organizations that have aided neighborhoods during the pandemic.

NEIL D. STEINBERG, CEO and president of the Rhode Island Foundation, said the new vaccine incentive program will help both the community get vaccinated against COVID-19 and also help support smaller nonprofits that have been on the frontlines throughout the pandemic. / PBN FILE PHOTO/DAVE HANSEN
NEIL D. STEINBERG, CEO and president of the Rhode Island Foundation, said the new vaccine incentive program will help both the community get vaccinated against COVID-19 and also help support smaller nonprofits that have been on the front lines throughout the pandemic. / PBN FILE PHOTO/DAVE HANSEN

“It’s an opportunity to do two good things. The first is to encourage people to get vaccinated for their health and the well-being of the community,” Rhode Island Foundation CEO and President Neil D. Steinberg told Providence Business News July 7. “It’s coupled with doing good by supporting the hard-working nonprofits that are boots on the ground and who have been serving for the last 18 months.”

Steinberg added nonprofits that responded directly to the pandemic’s impact and have annual revenue of less than $3 million are eligible for the funding. He also hopes nonprofits will encourage people, particularly those who live in hard-hit areas, to get vaccinated and support the overall greater good.

The program comes as the pace of vaccinations in the Ocean State has slowed considerably of late. From June 26 through Thursday, there have been 12,003 individuals in Rhode Island who have received their first COVID-19 vaccine dose, according to data from RIDOH – an average of about 923 people per day in that stretch.

The state was typically averaging between 5,000 to 7,000 first-time doses administered per day during the spring. In some instances, the state administered first doses to more than 10,000 individuals in a single day.

Additionally, just 20,011 new people in Rhode Island have been fully vaccinated in that stretch, about 1,539 per day, also lower than what the state averaged daily in the spring – about 3,000 to 4,000 full vaccinations.

Even though the state has since closed down the mass vaccination sites at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, which administered more than 100,000 doses, and at the former Benny’s location in Middletown, vaccines are still available at local pharmacies, the state-run Sockanosset Road location in Cranston and at various clinics, including Rhode Island Free Clinic.

Plus, while more than 70% of adults ages 18 and older statewide are fully vaccinated, some individual communities are still below that threshold. Only Barrington, Jamestown, New Shoreham and East Greenwich have full-vaccine rates higher than 70% in their respective communities.

Mario Bueno, executive director of Progreso Latino in Central Falls – a city that had one of the state’s highest infection rates during the pandemic and is only 52.4% fully vaccinated to date – told PBN this week that while the nonprofit is pleased with everyone’s effort to combat the virus, talking people into getting vaccinated is still a mountain to climb.

“It is still a struggle to convince some of the folks that are most ardently opposed to vaccinations, or do not have the information they need. I think it’s up to community members to share, talk to one another and say, ‘Hey this is a good thing; it’s important for you to get vaccinated,’ ” Bueno said. “We know it’s the best way for everyone to be safe.”

Ghazal said people are choosing against vaccinations for various reasons. For starters, some were worried the vaccines would cause adverse side effects, including infertility and the issue with blood clots that briefly suspended the Johnson & Johnson vaccine distribution in April.

“On the other hand, people also say it’s a new vaccine and it was rushed to get approval,” Ghazal said. “That’s not true either, if you really understand how this vaccine was approved, public health scrutiny, research, etc. Anything that we can do to better educate the community, bring them in [to get vaccinated], I think it’s great.”

Bueno also said that local organizations should be part of the state’s drive to increase vaccinations and helping disenfranchised communities to get the shots “is a good thing.”

Progreso Latino had been working with community health workers and local influencers to get the word out to others about the importance of getting vaccinated, Bueno said, and said more work needs to be done on the nonprofit’s end.

“We’re trying our best with the resources that we have,” Bueno said.

Ghazal said Rhode Island Free Clinic did apply for the grant Thursday and is now awaiting approval. She said having additional funding, especially through the state’s new grant program, will help Rhode Island Free Clinic have more infrastructure and better finance its operations. Plus, the funding will provide more resources to educate the community and the clinic’s patients.

The money will also lessen the burden of Rhode Island Free Clinic’s budget, Ghazal said. The organization relies 100% of its finances on philanthropy and has spent “hundreds of thousands” of dollars on testing, vaccines and additional staff to provide the community COVID-19 treatment for free, she said.

Steinberg thinks the new vaccination incentive is “worth a try.

There is no downside to it. More people we hope will get vaccinated and organizations that really need the support to help people in need will get funding,” he said.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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