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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Rhode Island’s two largest hospital groups did not violate laws or break state policies when they offered COVID-19 vaccinations to their board members before they were eligible, but they did erode public confidence in the fairness of the vaccination process, state Attorney General Peter Neronha said Tuesday.
Front-line health care workers were among the first people in Rhode Island to be eligible for a shot, but Lifespan and Care New England after vaccinating workers at high risk of exposure offered vaccinations to board members and some other employees, no matter their age or risk level.
The move drew criticism from people who said many high-risk residents were being denied vaccinations and prompted the attorney general’s investigation.
“The appearance or perception that certain connected or wealthy individuals were, by virtue of their seat on a hospital board of directors, being given an opportunity to ‘jump the line’ months in advance was upsetting to many and fueled anxiety among everyday Rhode Islanders who were dutifully waiting their turn,” the attorney general wrote in a letter to management at both organizations and the state Department of Health.
However, the state gave the hospital groups wide discretion on who they should vaccinate, the letter said.
“This office strongly believes that Lifespan and CNE should have acted differently,” the letter said.
Lifespan’s CEO, Dr. Timothy Babineau, in a statement said the organization is committed to the “equitable and efficient distribution of vaccines.”
“Our intent and actions have always been to work in accordance with the guidelines received from the Rhode Island Department of Health. That remains the case to this day. We acknowledge, along with the Attorney General, the importance of public perception and holding ourselves to the very highest of standards,” he said.
A voicemail message seeking comment was left with a Care New England spokesperson.
The Rhode Island Department of Health on Tuesday reported nearly 300 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 and two more virus-related deaths.
There have now been more than 134,300 known cases in the state and 2,606 fatalities.
There were 118 patients in Rhode Island hospitals with the disease as of Sunday, the same as the previous day.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Rhode Island has risen over the past two weeks from about 342 on March 7 to about 365 on Monday, according to Johns Hopkins statistics.
Nursing Home Visits
Rhode Island health officials, in response to several complaints, have sent a letter reminding the state’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities that they must now allow family members to visit their loved ones unless there is an immediate coronavirus safety risk.
Department of Health spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said around 10 families had reported problems visiting their relatives.
“Notwithstanding all of your good work on this issue, RIDOH continues to receive complaints from residents’ families and friends (e.g., one visit permitted in a three-week period for one resident),” the Monday letter said. “Now that the COVID-19 vaccine and spring have arrived, RIDOH’s expectation is that visitation will increase and facilities will begin to achieve pre-COVID-19 visitation levels.”
Visits to nursing homes were barred last spring when the coronavirus tore through the facilities, but were allowed to resume last month as infection rates declined and vaccination rates rose.
Scott Fraser, president of the Rhode Island Health Care Association, a nursing home trade group, said visits are happening, but nursing home managers are contending with regulations that make allowing visits difficult.
The Rhode Island Department of Health made about 4,000 first-dose coronavirus vaccination appointments available on Tuesday.
The appointments for the Moderna vaccine were for March 30 through April 3 at the state-run mass vaccination site at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence.
More first-dose appointments will be made available on Wednesday, but a department spokesperson said in a statement that the state has been concentrating on administering second doses and expects to give out 35,000 second doses this week.
The department expects larger numbers of first-dose appointments to be made available next week.
More than 305,000 people in Rhode Island have received at least one vaccine dose and more than 174,000 people have been fully vaccinated, according to department figures released Tuesday.