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AARP: Vaccinate seniors now! Leaders respond. Add YOUR voice.

By Herb Weiss, contributing writer on aging issues

The debate heats up as to how Rhode Island should distribute its limited stock of COVID-19 vaccine. Days ago, AARP Rhode Island urged state officials and lawmakers to put seniors on the top of the list to protect their lives. Older Rhode Islanders should be a priority in getting vaccinated, says the state’s largest nonprofit. 

AARP Rhode Island, generally speaking, reserves sending public letters to public officials for the most critical of issues. Because of the pandemic, a critical issue, AARP is reaching out to its 132,000 Ocean State members and the public at large to demand immediate change.

“The message AARP wants sent to the Governor and State Leaders reads, in part, “Rhode Islanders 50 and older account for 98% of the state’s more than 2,000 COVID deaths. Yet only a quarter of vaccinations to date have been administered to older Rhode Islanders. You must revise the plan to vaccinate the most vulnerable among us. I am therefore calling on you to revise the state vaccination plan immediately to prioritize vaccinating our 50 and older population. There is no time to waste,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell.

A Call to Revising the State’s Vaccination Distribution Plan

Connell added, “Now that the state has responded to AARP Rhode Island’s call to make the state’s COVID vaccination plan and its execution more transparent, I am alarmed and dismayed to find data only now available reveals that just 25% of vaccinations to date have been administered to Rhode Islanders age 60 and older.”

“The current disparity — which flies in the face of federal health recommendations and causes great concern for many older Rhode Islanders and their families — is inexplicable, life threatening and unacceptable,” says Connell. 

AARP Rhode Island’s work is part of a nationwide effort, says Connell. “AARP is advocating hard to ensure every older American who wants to get the vaccine can get it,” said AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer Nancy A. LeaMond.

“It’s also vital that distribution plans for authorized vaccines are smoothly implemented,” LeaMond added. “There’s no time to waste: it’s time for full-scale mobilization, and any delays or early bottlenecks in distribution systems need to be addressed urgently. AARP remains committed to protecting the health and well-being of our nearly 38 million members and all Americans as we work together to defeat this virus,” she said.

Rhode Island leaders respond to AARP’s call

Speaker of the House of Representatives Shekarchi:

“We all want the most at-risk people, including our seniors, to have access to the vaccine absolutely as soon as possible. My father is 94, and it will be a tremendous relief to me and my family when he is protected,” said House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23 Warwick). “President Biden’s timeline includes prioritizing access to the vaccine for those 65 and older, and it’s important that we comply with it,” he says.  

“I understand we need greater supply. Our House COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force will vigilantly monitor the distribution to ensure our state is doing everything we can to get the vaccine to those most at risk, particularly those 65 and older, as soon as possible, in cooperation with the federal government,” adds Shekarchi.

Dr. Chan, RI Dept. of Health:

In a Jan. 22 email vaccine update, Dr. Phillip A. Chan, MD, MS, the Rhode Island Department of Health’s (RIDOH) Consultant Medical Director, reported that 66,070 doses of vaccine had been administered in Rhode Island (52,925 first doses, and 13,145 second doses). “We are working hard to distribute vaccine, but supply remains very limited. Right now, we’re receiving enough first doses each week for about 1.5 percent of our population. While other states are in the same position, Rhode Island ranks among the top states nationally in terms of the rate of second doses administered,” he said.

As to the vaccination distribution timetable, Chan noted that nursing home residents and staff began to get vaccinated in December. “This week, we started to vaccinate in assisted living facilities and other congregate living settings.  By middle of February, we expect the vaccine will be available for adults 75 and older,” he says. 

According to Chan, there are 187,000 Rhode Islanders age 65 or older. “Since we are only getting 14,000 first doses of vaccine a week, we are taking a stepwise approach to this group as well,” he noted in RIDOH’s vaccine update.  “Please note that there is no action older adults need to take at this time to get a vaccine. When we are ready to start vaccinating this population, we will communicate with the public, healthcare providers, and community organizations to provide instructions.”

Incoming Governor, Lt. Gov. McKee:

Meeting outside Lt. Gov. Dan McKee’s Cumberland home, WPRI reporters, Eli Sherman and Brittany Schaefer, got insight into McKee’s thoughts about the state’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout strategy and issues surrounding this distribution. They report the details in a Jan. 23 WPRI blog article, “McKee: Teachers should get vaccine before others in Rhode Island.” McKee will move into the governor’s seat once Gov. Gina Raimondo is confirmed as U.S. Commerce Secretary.  

Here are some points from McKee’s interview in the Sherman and Schaefer’s blog article: 

“We need to really move up on the list teachers and the support staff in schools,” McKee said. “We’re not going to open the economy until we do that, and teachers are not going to feel comfortable by and large until we get them vaccinated.” (Teachers are not in the Rhode Island Department of Health’s phase one vaccination rollout)

“Prioritizing educators would inevitably delay vaccinations for all non-educators, and McKee did not name any other group Saturday that he thought should be prioritized. When asked specifically about adults 65 years and older, McKee said he expected they would also be prioritized, but underscored the state is only receiving a limited amount of supply of the vaccine from the federal government,” says the WPRI blog.

President Joe Biden encourages states to make it a priority to vaccinate people age 65 and over, along with grocery store workers and teachers. No specifics have been released yet by his administration. 

“I think it’s a supply issue, but that age group is a priority,” McKee said. “We’re going to follow the lead of the Biden administration”.  

Stay tuned as the debate continues on how Rhode Island should disseminate its limited COVID-19 stockpile – and what it can move to when the flow of vaccine becomes more generous.

Give Governor Gina Raimondo your thoughts as to AARP Rhode Island’s call for vaccinating people age 50 and over “immediately”.  Here’s the governor’s contact details:  Governor Gina Raimondo, 82 Smith Street, Providence, RI 02903; email: governor@governor.ri.gov; phone: (401) 222-8096. 

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.

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Herb Weiss has enjoyed a distinguished 41 year career in journalism, earning a national reputation as an expert on aging, health care and medical issues. Over 780 articles that he has authored or coauthored have appeared in national, state and local publications. Governor Gina Raimondo appointed Him to the Rhode Island Advisory Commission on aging. Today, Herb’s weekly newspaper column appears in the Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket call, two North Rhode Island daily newspapers, and will now run in RINewsToday.com. Herb and his wife, Patty Zacks, reside in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

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1 Comment

  1. Colleen J Derjue on January 25, 2021 at 4:14 pm

    I’m finding it very unclear when reading the soon to be governor’s statements regarding changing the Dept. of Health’s vaccination plan. Is he stating he would place all school personnel in the line ahead of the older people most at risk for serious outcomes, or he would move them up after that population? Given the lack of vaccines currently, would the school vaccinations likely come too late for the current school calendar? Wouldn’t those in schools most vulnerable be included under the current plan as well?