by Eileen Cooney ’23
On Feb. 1, Rhode Island reported a 2.7 percent COVID-19 positivity rate, its lowest since October, with 158 new cases and 13 fatalities. The decrease in the positivity rate is due to a combination of factors, but many health officials are pointing to the nearly 77,000 first doses of the vaccine that have been administered so far, and the 28,000 people in Rhode Island who have been fully vaccinated.
Rhode Island, like all states currently, is seeking to ramp up its vaccination efforts in hopes of stemming the winter surge and combatting new variants of the virus that are causing alarm.
On Jan. 28, state health officials announced the next phases of the state’s vaccination plan, which allows those who are 65 and older to be vaccinated starting in mid-February. As of now, there are only limited vaccinations available for those above the age of 75. Rhode Island first made vaccinations available to health-care workers, first responders, and nursing home and assisted living facility residents and staff.
Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, Rhode Island’s Department of Health director, has said that the next upcoming phase will involve all Rhode Islanders over the age of 16 who have underlying health conditions, are immunocompromised, or are pregnant. This next phase is also unique in that it would involve distributing vaccines at a quicker pace in those towns where there are a disproportionate number of hospitalizations due to the virus, Alexander-Scott has said in press conferences.
She states that, currently, the state is dealing with a limited supply of the vaccine, but that “the aims of this next phase are to protect those most at risk for hospitalizations and death from COVID-19.”
In neighboring states like Massachusetts, the vaccine roll-out has not been as well-received by residents. Massachusetts Senator Eric Lesser said on Jan. 28 that “the Phase 2 vaccine rollout is creating mass confusion and anxiety for our eligible senior population. The system is cumbersome, contradictory, and asks residents over 75 to navigate a haze of web links, locations, and instructions, each with different criteria and scheduling systems.” In response to criticism, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker urged all to be patient with the process until a steadier, more stable supply of doses is obtained from the federal government. The governor also said that his administration was working to create more resources to help those who are older and having difficulty trying to navigate the sign-up process.
News of increased vaccinations offers Rhode Islanders and those in neighboring states slight glimmers of hope during what has been a disastrous winter for the state and the country as a whole. New coronavirus variants that were first identified in South Africa and the United Kingdom have been found to be more contagious, and now there is preliminary evidence suggesting they could even increase mortality. On Jan. 29, Johnson & Johnson released data revealing that their one-dose vaccine is 66 percent effective against moderate and severe disease, but this hopeful measure was overshadowed by other data, suggesting the vaccine could be less effective against these new variants. Shares of Johnson & Johnson fell on Friday as investors were hoping for an efficacy number above 80 percent. In response to this pessimism among some, John Brooks, a chief medical officer at the CDC, said that “any vaccine is better than no vaccine.”
In the meantime, Providence College students find themselves going through the motions of weekly testing and social distancing measures following their return to campus for the spring semester. After observing an initial “quiet period” in which students were required to stay in their on or off-campus housing locations, with exceptions given for traveling to class and work, shopping for groceries and receiving grab-and-go meals from Raymond Dining Hall, and participating in outdoor exercise with a student’s own pod, the hope amongst many students is that recent developments on the vaccine front will help alleviate stress and restrictions on the PC community. Time will tell just how successful these recent vaccination efforts have been.