The highly anticipated rollout of the first vaccines for COVID-19 has begun in Rhode Island, but the order of those inoculations is under scrutiny.
The Phase 1 priorities for the two available vaccines include five tiers of professionals and residents, including front-line health care workers, people over age 75, and people in communities that have been hardest-hit by the pandemic, R.I. Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said in an update on Dec. 29.
Many advocates for communities that have been savaged by the pandemic are watching closely for her promise of equity. And some industry groups, meanwhile, are stepping forward to advocate for higher priority for their workers.
Both the Rhode Island Hospitality Association and the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus have advocated for their constituencies.
Black and Latino legislators cite the disproportionate impact of the virus that has been well-documented by the R.I. Department of Health.
In the Central Falls neighborhood covered by ZIP code 02863, for example, the rate of infection was 16,195 per 100,000 residents as of Dec. 28, more than three times the infection rate recorded for residents of the East Side of Providence.
That’s the kind of disparity that has motivated legislators such as Rep. Anastasia P. Williams, D-Providence, who represents neighborhoods that include Olneyville and Silver Lake. She said she wasn’t aware of any community-centered inoculations in her district. “If there is something on fire, you go to the fire and you put it out before it spreads,” she said.
Another caucus member, Rep. Grace Diaz, D-Providence, who represents South Providence and Elmwood, was blunt in her recommendation: “Where the COVID [pandemic] hit the hardest, the state should start vaccinating people in those areas first. To help people to not die. I know a lot of people who have passed from COVID-19.”
The ultimate decisions about how the vaccines are issued and who is considered “essential” are being made by Gov. Gina M. Raimondo’s office and Department of Health leadership, taking U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations into account. The health department said the plan will be adjusted as needed as the vaccinations proceed.
Alexander-Scott has pledged that vaccinations in the communities hardest-hit by the pandemic would begin early on. By Dec. 30, health officials were in Central Falls, vaccinating elderly residents at two high rises. Vaccines were made available to other city residents as well.
Because of the widespread demand, and the weekly allocations of available vaccine, vaccinations for Phase 1 will extend at least through February, Alexander-Scott said. The various groupings of people in the first phase also will overlap, she said, noting as an example that police and firefighters, as well as other health industry workers may start to receive their shots before inoculations in other Phase 1 populations are completed.
For workers, access to the vaccine may be determined by how “essential” they are considered. The Rhode Island Hospitality Association, which represents more than 80,000 restaurant and tourism workers, wants the hospitality sector to be considered “critical” to the state and its workers designated for the same priority phase as utility workers, agriculture and food production. In a letter to Raimondo, association CEO and President Dale Venturini asked for the industry to be included under the third of the four planned phases. “Rhode Island is uniquely dependent on our industry,” she wrote.
Whether that will happen is uncertain. When state representatives serving on a vaccine advisory committee asked the Department of Health leadership about the status of restaurant workers, they were told that grocery employees were considered critical, not necessarily restaurant employees.
“You can make food at home but only if you have access to the grocery store,” said Alysia Mihalakos, chief of the Center for Emergency Preparedness and Response at the R.I. Department of Health.
Want to share this story? Click Here to purchase a link that allows anyone to read it on any device whether or not they are a subscriber.