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Shots, masks and small biz: McKee covers wide range of pandemic topics during first local media roundtable

By JACOB MARROCCO
Posted 4/14/21

By JACOB MARROCCO Gov. Dan McKee touched on vaccination rates, hesitancy, masking, small businesses and more during a wide-ranging media roundtable at the State House last week. McKee and his staff will host the gatherings - mostly aimed at small, local

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NEWS

Shots, masks and small biz: McKee covers wide range of pandemic topics during first local media roundtable

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Gov. Dan McKee touched on vaccination rates, hesitancy, masking, small businesses and more during a wide-ranging media roundtable at the State House last week.

McKee and his staff will host the gatherings – mostly aimed at small, local news outlets – on a rotating basis, and Wednesday’s interview was the first of its kind. McKee spoke with the press only about a week before the FDA and CDC announced a temporary pause on the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine because of six cases of blood clots amid seven million doses administered.

President Joseph Biden said Tuesday that he didn’t expect the development to have a “significant impact,” and the FDA and CDC said during a joint press conference that they only expect the delay to last a few days.

McKee said last Wednesday the state has the capacity to give 160,000 shots per week, but the supply is only about half that amount at 70,000. The governor added that currently, 97 percent of Rhode Islanders live within 15 minutes of a COVID-19 vaccination site. He lauded the efforts of former Gov. Gina Raimondo, whose administration prioritized the inoculation of seniors.

Now, McKee said, the focus is on “trailing communities,” most notably Rhode Island ZIP codes with large Black or Latino populations.

“The idea is to get everybody vaccinated in the state of Rhode Island, but if there are trailing communities – whether it’s ZIP code communities, whether it’s in the BIPOC community right now, in terms of the Black and Latino community, indigenous community – we had the high-density strategy that was successful, but it didn’t really keep pace with the percentage of population,” the governor said.

McKee said there is a gender disparity in willingness to get the vaccine, as about 60 percent of recipients are women as opposed to 40 percent men. The Rhode Island population breakdown overall is approximately 52 percent women and 48 percent men.

“You have to figure out, in any community where there is an equity disparity, that we have to figure out why and we have to address that,” McKee said. “That’s what we’re doing intentionally, intentionally mobilizing for equity in the BIPOC community and we are engaging directly with the leaders of that community so that they are a part of the solution and that it’s not just, ‘Oh, we’ll take care of it and we’ll let you know.’ No, we’re intentionally involving them in this process, so that they are now in many ways involved, we’re going to make sure that we deliver and we appreciate their help so we want to embrace that help.”

As for assuaging vaccine reticence, McKee said the administration is asking family members to talk with loved ones, as well as civic leaders who can inspire confidence in their constituents. He used the recent teacher vaccination drive as an example of the power of messaging, as 88 percent of educators and school staff have been vaccinated based on available data.

“We engaged with civic leaders, because I think that’s going to play a major role in this. It’s up to us to identify where there is those gaps and then we have to create a plan to fill those gaps, and we need to measure whether or not the plan actually works,” he said. “So I think when you actually are intentional about it and educate people, it’s an education not just from the governor, it’s from a broad base of community civic engagement. We’re working on that right now, because we know when the demand exceeds the supply, we’ll have plenty of people to put shots in the arms.”

Supply vs. demand and the future of masking

When supply will outweigh demand is “the $64,000 question,” according to McKee. He said that as of last week, he expects 70 percent of Rhode Island to have at least one dose by mid-May, while that same figure of fully vaccinated residents is expected to be reached by mid-June.

He said when those levels are reached, supply will have exceeded demand. There are plans in place right, he added, for when that day arrives.

“For instance, we’re talking to the colleges and universities about making it their mandatory policy – just like getting a chicken pox vaccination, you can’t get on to a college campus without those vaccinations – they want to include the COVID vaccine as a requirement to come on campus,” the governor said. “What does that mean to us – because you've talked about communities that may be reluctant or may [say], ‘Oh, I’m too strong, I don’t need it,” we’re anticipating that the younger that you are, the more you might say, ‘I’m invincible, I don’t need it.’”

Those vaccinations will be key, as McKee estimated about 62,000 Rhode Islanders attend local colleges and universities. He also said the state aims to have K-12 and college institutions fully opened by September.

He predicted there will still be masking “through this calendar year,” but said he expected several restrictions to be lifted. While the potential remains for booster shots down the line, he assured the virus will remain active during the school year. He said NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci and other leaders in the field said during a call last week that a vaccine could be available this fall for kids ages 12 to 15.

“That’s why we need to get shots in everybody’s arms as quickly as possible,” McKee said. “I think at our schools you’re going to see that the distance is going to go from 6 feet to 3 feet by the end of this month. I’m anticipating that schools are going to be very much opened up for May and June, which is critical. I do think you're still going to have a certain level of mask-wearing, particularly in the schools.”

McKee said he does see a future without masks, but “we’re not there yet.” He sees an economically successful summer in the offing, adding that he was recently in Newport and officials are “very optimistic” about tourism and reservations have increased.

He also said a request for proposal, or RFP, has been issued for the deconstruction of a field hospital at the Rhode Island Convention Center. He said he would like to see RICC begin hosting events by this August.

“We still don’t know what the conditions are, we have to work our way through that, but masks and testing will be part of that,” McKee said. “Vaccination could be part of that, but the idea is that we’re in that spot now where we believe very strongly that we can dismantle the field hospital that was there on a cautionary basis and I feel as though we’re in a good spot because of this vaccination rate to dismantle that. Providence in particular has suffered a great deal, as a lot of communities have economically.”

Very important to the backbone of our communities’

McKee, a proponent of small business, announced a small business relief grant program during the roundtable, centered on helping ailing local institutions.

A press release Monday expanded on the details, with $20 million in CARES Act funds being made available in $5,000 increments to eligible small businesses. The first batch of applications are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis from April 15 through April 30.

“Small businesses are very important to the backbone of our communities, and so we know that many of them have been impacted severely,” McKee said. “There’s many of them that have been able to survive and thrive. There are industries like the construction industry, the landscape industry, there’s many, many manufacturers that never shut down manufacturing. There’s certainly recovery going on in that area, but there are restaurants, the hospitality area, there’s certain areas that are getting impacted more than others. A community like Newport might be down 30 percent, a community like Providence might be down 70 percent.”

McKee said that drawing workers – some making more with the unemployment boost than they would otherwise – back to restaurants and other establishments “is a challenge.” He said he has talked to restaurant owners, hoping to develop “targeted strategies” for vaccinations and an increased incentive to return to work.

He said the federal government should “take a close look” at working in the $300 unemployment boost into a worker’s paycheck. He said the pandemic has reinforced how vital minimum-wage workers are to the small business economy, and he advocated for elevating “the minimum wage in a way that the small businesses can absorb.”

“If somebody was going to receive a $300 bonus on unemployment, you get them vaccinated, they get back to work and there’s some way that those dollars would flow to the business so they can compensate those individuals in a way they are not losing dollars by going to work,” the governor said. “It’s a difficult thing, but one thing on this issue, most of the things that you're talking about in terms of the businesses that are being impacted, they’re minimum-wage workers. Just like we learned how important our small businesses are to our community, we’re also learning how important minimum-wage workers are to the small businesses in our community, right?”

McKee said his administration has taken other “symbolic” efforts to show its dedication to small businesses, which includes the elimination of a $10 fee for filling out a sales tax form.

“Not that that’s a big deal, but it was meant to send a message that everywhere we can simplify the process, take burden off of the small business community, our goal is to make sure that we are in a very high class of small business friendliness,” he said.

Small businesses matters were important to his lieutenant governor’s office, and McKee expects more of the same when Sabina Matos takes over the post. He said they will “continue to be a front-and-center issue.”

“We’re always trying to find even the smallest areas where there’s a competitive disadvantage and an unlevel playing field, so we’re encouraging businesses throughout the state to really provide us with real, specific information,” he said.

McKee took a moment to thank municipal leaders for hosting local and regional vaccination pods across the state. He said Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena, a longtime confidant of McKee’s and co-chair of his COVID-19 advisory group, is “no exception.” He said the committee’s subgroups continue to meet on the economy, education and vaccinations, and he singled out co-chair Dr. John Stoukides and Dr. Ashish Jha of Brown University for their work on the panel.

“He’s a master at creating economy and small business development,” McKee said of Polisena. “Heck, the place that he had the vaccine [pod], he was able to make sure that his community was served, all that money came in from dollars he received from the landfill in terms of making up for some of the smells that were going on. Mayor Polisena is not only a friend but a colleague that I really do appreciate his work. I kid around with people, we may have different methods, but we kind of get to the same spot in terms of helping people out, and I appreciate Mayor Polisena’s help.”

McKee, roundtable

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