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Health officials to unveil who gets the vaccine next in RI later this week

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s top health officials are expected to unveil Thursday who will be getting COVID-19 vaccines next in the state, a highly anticipated decision that’s become politically charged.

Dr. Philip Chan, a consultant medical director at the R.I. Department of Health, told 12 News the state will likely release its finalized Phase 2 prioritization list during the state’s COVID-19 news conference on Thursday.

“That will be big news this week, just in terms of looking at which populations are prioritized and how we plan on going through Phase 2,” Chan said.

The Health Department had been leaning toward prioritizing the next group of people based on age, underlying health conditions and geography. But governor-in-waiting Dan McKee threw a wrench into the plan over the weekend when he called a news conference to announce he wants teachers to be prioritized before others.

McKee, who will ascend to the state’s top office once Gov. Gina Raimondo is confirmed to become U.S. commerce secretary, has argued teachers will feel more comfortable doing their jobs and will help reopen the economy once inoculated. On Monday, McKee said he also wants to see older adults with underlying health conditions prioritized, in some cases ahead of teachers, who have lobbied hard for vaccine prioritization.

“I am not suggesting that seniors with underlying conditions be denied access to our vaccine supply in favor of healthy, 25-year-old teachers,” McKee told 12 News om Monday. “I want everyone to get vaccinated as quickly as possible, and as I’ve stated, teachers should be a priority.”

Rhode Island receives about 14,000 new doses of vaccine each week, meaning at best 2,000 additional people can be inoculated per day. As of Monday, roughly 60,000 Rhode Islanders had received at least one dose so far.

With such limited supply, the state has decided to start by vaccinating health care workers, nursing home residents, first responders and high-risk inmates, along with adults 75 years and older living at home. The state estimates it could take until March or April to get through that group, which totals more than 200,000 people.

The state as of Monday was a regional outlier in its failure to announce a vaccination plan beyond the initial Phase 1 group, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And the lack of direction has led to rising criticism of Raimondo, who has stopped communicating publicly about how she wants the state to move forward as she awaits U.S. Senate confirmation.

Raimondo appeared publicly Tuesday for the first time since Jan. 13 to speak virtually before the Senate Commerce Committee, making her case for why she should be confirmed. Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker, who is the committee’s chairman, indicated she will likely be confirmed relatively soon.

That news could be welcome news to Rhode Islanders who are confused about who is really calling the shots amid the ongoing pandemic. Since President Biden picked Raimondo to serve on his cabinet, the second-term Democrat has refused to answer reporters’ questions about the public health crisis, leaving her Health Department largely in charge of day-to-day operations.

Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott — who has become the main public face of the Raimondo administration’s coronavirus policy with the governor out of sight — expressed support Friday for a Phase 2 prioritization plan that didn’t give any consideration to occupation.

When asked what that meant for teachers, she said it would still result in more than 50% of educators getting vaccinated, along with high-risk individuals in every other profession.

But the decision met with fierce pushback from teachers, who had been publicly and privately lobbying Alexander-Scott and McKee for higher prioritization. A day later, McKee announced he wanted teachers moved up the list and the Health Department has since been scrambling to rework its plan.

McKee’s announcement has received praise from teachers unions, which often have been at odds with McKee over the years. But other essential frontline workers, such as grocery store workers and factory employees, were left wondering where they fit into the rollout strategy.

It’s unclear whether groups of workers other than teachers will be prioritized on the Phase 2 list.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.


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