The latest meeting of Gov. Dan McKee’s COVID-19 advisory group Monday provided insight into vaccine transparency, reopening schools and staving off a potential spike in cases.
McKee, one day before announcing his plan to inoculate teachers by the end of March, said that more than 90 percent of residents 75 years or older have received at least one shot, while the figure is in the mid-60s for those 65 and older. He said vaccinations will be opened up to those between 60 and 64 “shortly.”
Dr. John Stoukides, who co-chairs the committee along with Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena, said the vaccination subcommittee proposed a few recommendations after its latest gathering. The first was to continue the strong community engagement and increasing local distribution to get residents vaccinated. The group also encouraged the involvement of the primary care physician community. He said that they don’t have the ability to store the vaccine at those offices currently, but they could help the state get shots in arms when an increase in supply does happen.
He said the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine also provides the opportunity for hospitals and emergency rooms to administer shots, since patients don’t have to schedule follow-up appointments.
“One of the committee members brought up that we should develop a more open process for reporting vaccine supply,” Stoukides said. “A more transparent setup to advertise how many setups there are in the state, how many have not been given so far, so people have a good idea of what’s been happening with vaccine distribution.”
That committee member was Barrington Town Manager Jim Cunha, who urged the state to “build confidence with the public” through a more transparent process.
“Beat back any doubt the people might have of the validity of what we’re trying to do,” Cunha said.
Polisena said in his remarks earlier that the state needs to “spread the word that the vaccines are safe, especially in communities of color.”
“We don’t want to miss any populations, the 39 cities and towns, those citizens are cared for, it’s important for the governor to meet the needs of those who want to get the shots,” Polisena said. “[McKee] is working round the clock to get the shots in arms of teachers, get the students back in the classrooms and get the businesses back in business.”
Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said Rhode Island has done a “remarkable job” in the past seven to 10 days in ramping up its vaccinations.
The state has previously been low in the New York Times distribution tracker, ranking toward the bottom a few weeks ago as rollout remained sluggish. However, as of March 9, the publication has Rhode Island sixth among states in at least one shot being given, though its fully vaccinated total – 8.9 percent – is a bit less than 1 percent below the national average of 9.7 percent.
“This is the right time to be doing it,” Jha said. “It’s particularly important because right now is the time period where the variants you hear about – we have one job and one job only, which is to vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate.”
He noted that the particularly worrisome B.1.1.7 variant, which was first reported in the United Kingdom, likely accounts for 40 percent of cases in Florida and upwards of 20 percent in Massachusetts. He said the next two to three weeks remain “super critical” in warding off a spike in cases with continued inoculations.
He said “all the evidence” points to all three available vaccines working “fabulously well” against variants.
“We have some [cases] in Rhode Island, it’s doubling both every 10 days,” he said. “So over the next couple weeks, it will become the dominant force. I’m hopeful we’re going to avoid [a spike] … The progress we’ve made over the past couple of weeks is going to make a huge difference. Just have to keep going. The more high-risk people we can vaccinate, the bigger impact it will have.”
He added: “Local leaders, regional leaders, people [that] people look up to and trust, have to be evangelists for this … At the end of the day message is important, but the messenger is maybe even more so.”
Jha said that vaccine supply will continue to increase throughout March and into April, recommending the state not hold back as supply chains look strong. He said that with every shipment, there must be a plan to distribute the shots.
Toward the end of his remarks, Jha offered four protocols for returning schools to some level of normalcy. The usual guidelines were advised – such as mask-wearing and “reasonable ventilation” in every classroom – but he also supported increased testing in schools to catch outbreaks before they happen. Vaccinating school staff and educators is also essential, Jha said.
He pointed out that he did not mention deep cleaning or wiping surfaces, saying there is “not much data that that makes a big difference [and] these are things we get distracted by.”