A Great Pace: Vaccinations discussed at the weekly COVID-19 press conference

Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee was back on stage today, headlining the COVID-19 press conference. McKee stated he is proud of the progress the Ocean State has made in its vaccinations and its buildup of capacity to put thousands of shots in arms. Johnson & Johnson’s single dose vaccine is expected to start arriving within a few weeks, pending federal and state approval. “That’s why it’s increasing — both state sites and regional sites will build up capacity and supply to quickly get shots in arms,” said McKee. He also announced the state is receiving a $64 million grant from FEMA to aid with costs related to vaccine distribution.

Rhode Island could receive an initial shipment of 9,000 of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a significant number that will aid the state’s fight against the coronavirus. McKee had several other announcements, including prioritizing teachers and school personnel in his vaccination as governor. The move is a switch from the age-based vaccination strategy.

Dr. Alexander-Scott today announced two new state-run vaccination sites will be opening in a matter of weeks. The first site will be where the Benny’s used to be in Middletown — “In true Rhode Island style,” quipped Dr. Alexander-Scott — the second will be on the corner of Mendon Road and Diamond Hill Road where a Sears used to be. According to data obtained from RI National Guard Gen. Callahan, 300 people are getting vaccinated at Rhode Island vax sites per hour, for a total of 6,600 doses per day going into arms across the state. “A great pace,” said Dr. Alexander-Scott. The DOH director said not to worry about which vaccine to get, but focus on getting vaccinated as quickly as possible. DOH also reports no severe allergic reactions or deaths in Rhode Island related to the COVID-19 vaccine. 

DEM director Janet Coit was also on stage today, announcing that high-risk, higher contact sports, such as football and lacrosse, could begin playing competitively again for the spring season. Teams from neighboring New England states can also begin to play competitively again in the Ocean State, but the states they come from must have a percent positive rate of lower than 5% and observe all other travel restrictions before coming in. COVID-19 modifications are still in place for school sports. Students must wear masks when playing and sanitize equipment regularly. Coit and McKee speculated that events such as Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals would not have to cancel this year.

COVID-19 trends are still falling in Rhode Island. State health officials reported 387 new cases since yesterday. There are 163 people in the hospital. Dr. Alexander-Scott announced daily new hospitals admissions had fallen 65% compared to where they’ve been. The national average in new hospital admissions is a 45% reduction. Thirty-four people remain in the ICU with 17 on ventilators. DoH also reports 10 new deaths connected to COVID-19. 

In RI, 160,090 people have gotten the first vaccination dose; 65,461 have received the second dose and are considered fully vaccinated. The state has used 225,551 from its stockpile of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Life Mission: Looking into a distant moon ocean

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

More than 340 million miles beyond Mars, an icy moon awaits its first close-up. Days before NASA’s Perseverance rover reached the surface of the Red Planet, the US space program announced updates to another long-awaited mission with the potential to find signs of life. In October 2024, the Europa Clipper will leave Earth on a private rocket, destined to begin orbiting Jupiter nearly six years later to study Europa, the smallest of the yellow planet’s largest moons.

“Unlike what one day might be discovered on Mars,” writes David W. Brown in The Mission, a swirling exploration of the history, science, money and policy maneuverings behind the two-decade journey behind the mission to Europa, “Europan life has a real chance of complexity.”

In 1610, German astronomer Simon Marius and his Italian adversary Galileo Galilei each sighted four satellites orbiting Jupiter using homemade telescopes. Galilei published his findings first. Despite centuries of improvements to telescopic technology, the Galilean moons of Jupiter — including Callisto, Ganymede, and Io — remained a mystery until NASA’s Pioneer and Voyager missions in the 1970s beamed glimpses of their surfaces back to Earth. A distant speck amidst the celestial spheres, many of the revolutions of Europa began in Providence.

“We’re mentally hardwired to think in the short term,” said Jim Head, a distinguished professor of planetary geosciences at Brown University. “We have to cultivate and work toward trying to think more in the long term.”

The Galilean moons, or satellites, of Jupiter; from left to right: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto; Image credit: NASA/JPL/DLR

In 1961, having failed out of his sophomore year at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, Head listened to breakthroughs in the space race at home in Washington, DC, on what he calls “my first sabbatical.” Within six weeks, Soviet Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space, Alan Shepard followed as the first American, and President John F. Kennedy addressed Congress to propose not only landing on the Moon, but also “even more exciting and ambitious exploration of space… perhaps to the very end of the solar system itself.”

After gaining readmittance to Washington and Lee, Head continued his major in geology. He had enrolled in an introductory course to fulfill a science requirement. Unlike chemistry and physics, the labs took place outdoors and involved field trips. Head fell for the study of the Earth’s surface and carried his curiosity to graduate studies at Brown, writing his dissertation on the 400 million year old history held in the sedimentary rocks of the Appalachian Mountains.

As Head completed his PhD in 1969, he thumbed through an employment directory. Most of the listings for geologists involved teaching at small colleges or working for the oil industry, but in a separate section, Head found an unexpected advertisement. With the Apollo 11 mission months away, a photograph of the Moon was accompanied by the text “our job is to think our way to the Moon and back.” Although lacking lunar expertise, Head called the phone number printed in the corner. The experiences that followed, he said, “opened up the heavens.”

“When I went to NASA, I was deathly afraid they would find out I didn’t know anything about the Moon or the planets,” said Head. “And I quickly learned, of course, nobody knew anything about the planets. That’s why we were going.”

Working on the Apollo program, Head helped select lunar landing sites, trained astronauts in geology and surface exploration, and analyzed the samples they brought back from the Moon. In 1972, he returned to Providence as a member of the faculty at Brown, though shuttled back and forth to Houston for a year as interim director of the Lunar Science Institute. At home, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon orbited around the needle of Head’s record player.

Lunar Module (left) and Lunar Roving Vehicle (right) during the Apollo 15 mission to the Moon; Image credit: Johnson Space Center

Researching the geological processes found across the planets and the historical record they left behind, Head studied Arctic and Antarctic glaciers and volcanic deposits in Hawai’i, in Iceland and along the sea floor. To improve scientific collaboration between the United States and the USSR, he established a research partnership between Brown and the Vernadsky Institute in Moscow. He advised missions to Mars, Venus and Jupiter and also worked as part of the mission teams, but said he viewed teaching undergraduates and supporting graduate research as central to his role. One of those graduate students was Louise Prockter.

Growing up in London, Prockter learned at the Natural History Museum that rocks “told stories about the world they left behind,” writes Brown. After high school, she decided not to pursue university studies. Instead, she spent several years in a series of sales roles, starting with local newspaper advertisements before finding work selling typewriters and later PVC ring binders.

“I got to think creatively at that time,” said Prockter, now chief scientist of the space exploration sector at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. “I learned a lot of things that, while having nothing to do with science, were very useful. I learned to work under pressure. I learned to work with deadlines. And that’s very useful in the space business.”

After enrolling in a part-time correspondence program on general sciences, Prockter continued her education. Attending Lancaster University as a “mature” undergraduate student, in one of her classes she read a Journal of Geophysical Research paper about crater formation on Venus. Written by Peter Schultz, a professor at Brown, the publication — a “meticulous work conducted over a number of years to solve a small oddity on another world,” writes Brown  — set an example she wished to follow. As Prockter considered US graduate programs, in July 1994 she flew from England to meet with Jim Head. Her arrival in Providence coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. That week, she found a pizza party set up alongside telescopes on campus to witness a comet shattering into Jupiter.

In her own research at Brown, Prockter studied geomorphology, interpreting planetary surfaces and their relationships with geology. She focused on volcanic activity in the Earth’s ocean and on Venus, writing her dissertation on features in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. When in 1995 Prockter witnessed images from NASA’s Galileo space probe, she understood the transferability of her research across the planets. She led the imaging plans for two of the mission’s Europa flybys.

“The payoff is unbelievable,” said Prockter. “When you get images from spacecraft that no one’s ever seen before.”

“It’s just almost a universal language, of space,” she said. “Everybody dreams, and everybody aspires to learn more about the universe and why we’re here.”

Head and Prockter were joined in their work by Geoff Collins, now a professor at Wheaton College, and Robert Pappalardo, a postdoc arriving from Arizona State University. He had looked to space for as long as he could remember, writes Brown. Crafting a model of the solar system above his bed as a child, Pappalardo replicated the icy moons of Jupiter with “crushed masking tape” held in place by toothpicks. He found geology to be his pathway to the planets.

“I view the solar system as a laboratory for trying to understand how life originated and evolved,” said Head.

“If you want to see what it would be like, with climate change and global warming run amok, you go to Venus,” said Prockter. “If you want to see what it’s like on a world where there used to be water but now there isn’t, you go to Mars.”

For Pappalardo, Europa held particular intrigue. At Brown, he analyzed the data from Galileo and planned the mission’s campaigns to capture images of Jupiter’s icy moons, including high-resolution images of Europa. The data led Prockter, Pappalardo and their colleagues to speculate about the existence, and the implications, of water captured under its frozen surface.

“Brown’s importance to the Europa story is more than happenstance,” said Brown, the writer, about the university. “The inner workings of the ice shell surrounding the ocean were unlocked there, and scientists at Brown chipped away at the nature of the mysterious moon’s bizarre geology.”

After six years as a postdoc at Brown, Pappalardo became an assistant professor at University of Colorado, Boulder. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory plucked him from academia to become a senior research scientist at its headquarters in Pasadena, California, where he led the science behind the possibility, and then the eventuality, of exploring Europa. After Brown, Prockter moved to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, continuing her collaborations with Pappalardo as a scientist shaping the planning for the team’s missions.

Ice rafting on Europa, referring to the transport of sediment that became embedded in the icy surface of the Jovian moon; Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Brown University’s influence on planetary sciences dates back before the Revolutionary War. Then known as Rhode Island College, in 1769 Brown’s professors Benjamin West and Joseph Brown published their observations on the transit of Venus, leaving their legacy behind on the naming of Transit and Planet Streets near campus. Ladd Observatory opened for researchers in 1891 and began to welcome the public in 1930. Faculty members guided the science behind the Viking 1’s mission to Mars, confirmed the existence of water on the surface of the Earth’s moon, and uncovered further evidence of water within its interior. Research from Brown graduate students and faculty, including Head, informed the decision for the Perseverance rover and its Ingenuity helicopter to explore the Jezero crater on NASA’s current mission to Mars.

In The Mission, Brown writes that Jim Head was a “force among the chosen few in the field” whose contributions to the Apollo program were “part of the most arresting and audacious achievement of the twentieth century, if not all of human history.” By approaching his doctorate as “a degree in advanced problem solving,” Head said he sees no surprise in his career path being “nonlinear.” For the researchers whose orbits fell into alignment together under Head’s helm, including Prockter and Pappalardo, when the Europa Clipper reaches its destination in April 2030, its findings will be the result of the questions and hypotheses raised in Providence.

“Science is really simple,” said Head. “It’s just simply the exploration of the unknown. And you know, almost everything is not yet known.”

# # #

David W. Brown’s The Mission: How a Disciple of Carl Sagan, an Ex-Motocross Racer, a Texas Tea Party Congressman, the World’s Worst Typewriter Saleswoman, California Mountain People, and an Anonymous NASA Functionary Went to War with Mars, Survived an Insurgency at Saturn, Traded Blows with Washington, and Stole a Ride on an Alabama Moon Rocket to Send a Space Rocket to Jupiter in Search of the Second Garden of Eden at the Bottom of an Alien Ocean Inside of an Ice World Called Europa is published by Custom House Books.

After the pandemic, reward your inner astronomer at Rhode Island’s observatories: Ladd Observatory at Brown University in Providence; Skyscrapers, Inc.’s Seagrave Memorial Observatory in North Scituate; the Community College of Rhode Island’s Margaret M. Jacoby Observatory; and the Frosty Drew Observatory in Charlestown. The University of Rhode Island’s planetarium also hosts a public program.

In Providence: Falling in love on Smith Street

When I was in high school, I used to walk up Smith Street to my dad’s office. I’d start at LaSalle Academy and make my way past the houses, law offices, gas stations and plazas. I’d pass the North Providence town line and haul my backpack almost to the end of the street. I never had a problem with doing the walk, because even on a busy road, you’d catch glimpses of people’s lives as they walked past you or you stopped at a light and listened to the music coming out of their open car windows.

“I started walking last April when the weather warmed up, and I asked him if he wanted to join me. I live near the Walgreen’s and he lives closer to where the college is, so we would meet up near my place and go from there.”

They had dated briefly at the beginning of the year, but both their schedules were so tight, it was hard to ever make plans to see each other. They chose to interpret that as “the timing being off” and they let any chance of future dates go by the wayside.

“That would happen to me all the time. I kept saying, you know, that my work was my main priority — and it was, but I had, you know, convinced myself that I would meet someone who could fit into this crazy schedule I had, and now, looking back, I see that nobody was going to. There was nowhere to put anybody. My life from the time I woke up until I went to bed was work, work, work. I don’t know how I thought I was going to be able to start a relationship with all that going on around me.”

Like many young professionals, she found herself having to reorganize her entire life once going into the office was no longer an option. Not only was she now working from home, but drinks with coworkers after hours and going out on weekends to try and maintain some semblance of a personal life was out the window as well.

“I thought, ‘Let’s try walking.’ Everybody’s walking. I live in this nice area. Let me go for a walk.”

But she didn’t want to walk alone.

“I had met him through a friend, and conveniently, we lived near each other. I don’t know why, but I shot him a message one day, and I said, ‘I’m going for a walk. Would you like to join me?’ He said he would like that, and we started walking together every day after that.”

If you’re one of those people who started walking as the result of the pandemic, you might have noticed places you thought were familiar take on a new light. Driving by something and walking past it are two very different things. She was discovering that about her neighborhood, and about her walking partner as well.

“The thing is, you go on a few dates with someone, and you think you’ve got a sense of who they are. We were walking every day, and I’m learning all these interesting things about him. Why didn’t I hear any of that before? I would stop him and say ‘Why didn’t you tell me that before?’ and either he had told me and I wasn’t listening or I hadn’t shown enough of an interest in him to the point where he even wanted to tell me anything. He knew things weren’t going anywhere because I was so preoccupied. I was so mad at myself, because he turned out to be this great guy, and I had written him off.”

She found herself in the odd position of falling in love with someone she had already dismissed from her life. Luckily for her, he was enjoying getting to know a different side of her. The two soon found themselves going walking more than once a day, running nearby errands on foot, even making trips to downtown and back.

“I tell everybody I got in great shape trying to make up for lost time. We both got addicted to it though, I think, to spending time with each other and to walking when we could. We couldn’t go in anywhere at first, because of COVID, but we would get fresh air, and see other people walking, and just get out of the house for a little bit and feel like we were taking back a small part of our lives.”

By the time things started to settle down, she had already determined that she wanted him to be more than a walking partner.

“We started to go for a walk. It was a Sunday afternoon. I kept trying to start the conversation, and I was so nervous about it, I almost walked into traffic. He knew something was up with me. When I told him that I wanted another shot at us dating, he was so relieved, because he thought I was going to cut him loose again. We were both feeling like we didn’t want to let this go this time around, and, you know, we both feel very appreciative that we got a second chance, because not everybody gets that.”

If you go walking down Smith Street, you may see two people walking by you or on the other side of the road. They might look like a couple that’s always been in love, but not every happy ending is the result of a fairy tale. 

“We still walk every day. I still work hard. I love my work. I’m proud of my work. But this year has taught me that work isn’t going to be there for you when you’re having a hard time with the world. You need people for that. You need people.”

Sometimes you need to be forced to take a second look to see what it is you almost missed.

Adventures in Digital Theater: Or when the comments section strikes back

On President’s Day, I did a live digital reading of a play I’d written called Mayor Pete.

It’s a one-man show about Pete Buttigieg, small-town mayor, former Presidential candidate, and current Secretary of Transportation, who recently made history as America’s first openly gay cabinet member.

Because I’ve been a little wary of doing any long-form content on my theater’s social media, I was ambivalent about the reading itself.

I thought it might be useful to practice performing the piece in front of the one or two people I assumed would be watching in preparation for an in-person production of the show later in the year. Then again, I thought assuming one or two people might show up was already setting the bar way too high.

The only marketing I did for the show was a press release I sent out that, as far as I can tell, got picked up by exactly one news outlet.

Of course, due to the wonder of Google alerts, sometimes one news outlet can be like the chimney in Mary Poppins — sending a ripped up note to a magical nanny land where Julie Andrews is just waiting to come down to earth so she can organize your nursery.

The resulting article was noticed by Pete’s fan club, and they showed up in droves to watch me do a 90-minute play all about their idol.

Unfortunately for them — and I guess, for me — the play is not a cut-and-dried autobiography of Pete. In fact, it’s an imagined version of Pete that presents a fantastical and unfiltered look at him and his brief time in public life. While it doesn’t exactly make him look bad, it’s not striving to present any kind of accurate picture of him.

Guess how well that went over with the fan club?

As I was reading the piece, I made an effort not to look at the comments section, but once I reached the ending, I knew the firing squad was already locked and loaded. It’s funny how, even with a digital audience, you can tell when your work has landed like a parachute made out of titanium. In a moment of great wisdom, I had promised at the top of the reading that once it was over, I would do — deep breath — a Q&A.

Reader, there were so many Qs and I had so few As.

For one thing, many of the people watching the livestream had little-to-no knowledge of theater. That isn’t me being a gatekeeper, but just someone pointing out that some of these people really expected me to simply repeat things Pete has said or read sections of his book Trust like a witness reading a statement into the public record.

Others were more open to the idea that I would be taking liberties, but they felt that I was misrepresenting some of Pete’s views, and they wondered why I would use Pete at all and not just write a play called Generic Gay Mayor Who Runs for President. I tried to think of a tactful way to say “Nobody would watch that” while not exactly admitting that playwrights use public figures in their work to draw interest to it, because I’ve done that once before, and it turns out that while those people are fair game, there’s nothing preventing them from sending you a cease and desist letter all the same.

After about a half hour, I found that most of the people commenting were quite nice, even if they weren’t fans of what I had done. Most thought the play needed to be cut (they’re right) and some openly espoused their love for Pete. I had to be frank and say that I don’t think it’s a wise idea to idolize any politician. One woman accused me of being a “Bernie Bro” and while I was trying to stay cool and collected, I felt steam coming out of my ears like one of those cartoon wolves watching a pretty girl perform in a nightclub act.

Performing to that kind of hostile audience is exactly the kind of thing I shouldn’t miss about doing theater, but the truth is, it felt more like theater than anything I’ve done since the start of the pandemic, because if you were trying to embody what stand-up comedy feels like, you’d be dishonest if you told yourself it felt like the time when everybody was laughing and you were nailing every joke.

It’s the same for theater.

While we’re tempted to remember only the good things, I think it’s safe to say that at this point, I’ve started to miss even the bad stuff — like that audience that just isn’t into what you’re doing. The talkback where you feel as though you’re defending your work like it’s a child being bullied on a playground because the kid talks a little too much. Having to grapple with the fact that any new work that elicits a strong response is always preferable to everybody saying, “Good job,” then high-tailing it out of the lobby.

For a half hour after I was finished reading my new play, I was harangued, insulted and criticized. For most people, it would have been a nightmare. An entire comments section that you can’t look away from regaling you with negativity. I had a moment where I wondered if I should simply throw water on my laptop in the hopes that it would be destroyed and I could stop having to explain myself.

It wasn’t until I was on the way home that I thought to myself–

Wow, I missed that.

DoH Director Defends Vaccine Rollout: A summary of the weekly COVID-19 press conference

DOH director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, Commerce Sec. Stefan Pryor, and Maj. Gen. Chris Callahan of the RI National Guard gave the weekly COVID press conference today at 1pm. Conspicuously, neither Gov. Gina Raimondo nor governor-in-waiting Dan McKee were in attendance.

DOH officials reported 320 new cases of COVID-19 since yesterday, out of 17,924 tests. The test positive rate has plummeted to 1.8%, compared to being in the double digits before the pause started last year. There are 180 people hospitalized with the virus, 32 are in intensive care and 18 are on ventilators. DOH reports 119,284 people have received the first dose of the vaccine, with 54,350 having received the second dose and count as fully vaccinated. The state has used 173,634 doses of the vaccine supply since vaccinations started in December.

Starting tomorrow, hospitals, nursing homes and congregate care settings can begin resuming visitations as long as they have not had a positive coronavirus case within the last two weeks. Regular COVID guidance, such as hand-washing, social distancing and mask-wearing, remain in place. Existing guidance for visitation at these facilities had been very strict, often only allowing for caregivers and family members to visit during end of life care.

“Rhode Island continues to be in a very good place when it comes to our COVID-19 response,” said Dr. Alexander-Scott. While the state’s vaccine rollout has proven controversial when compared to how other states rank, Dr. Alexander-Scott credited DOH’s targeted approach as essential to protecting the Ocean State’s vulnerable populations and maintaining equity in distribution. According to data provided by state health officials, hospitalizations have been reduced by 46% due to vaccinations and other measures mandated by the state. Neighboring Connecticut and Massachusetts have only been able to reduce hospitalizations in 2021 by 10% and 32% respectively. The national average on hospitalizations is a reduction by 32%. 

Dr. Alexander-Scott defended the state’s vaccination rollout, saying, “We’ve seen the majority of our fatalities, close to 70% of our COVID-19 fatalities have been from our congregate care settings.” She continued to state that health leaders have achieved many of the goals in phase one of the vaccination plan. The state is beginning phase two, with vaccination appointments opening to people between the ages of 65 and 74 and other similar high risk groups.

The two state-run vaccination sites opened this morning, and according to Dr. Alexander-Scott, more than 10,000 appointments have been made, with even more getting the vaccine through CVS or Walgreens retail locations. Dr. Alexander-Scott today said the state would continue to expand more state-run vaccination sites across the state. DOH officials envision replacing the sites run by municipalities with five regional sites run by local governments. “This our model: more shots at fewer and more central locations,” said Dr. Alexander-Scott. 

Rhode Islanders over the age of 65 can sign up for a vaccine starting next week. Interested citizens should go to vaccinateri.org or call 844-930-1779.

RI COVID-19 vaccinations open for age 75-plus now, age 65-74 next week

COVID-19 vaccination reservations can now be made for everyone age 75 or older who lives, works, or goes to school in Rhode Island, the RI Department of Health (DoH) announced this morning. Actual vaccination appointments begin tomorrow, Thursday, February 18, at the two state-run points of dispensing (PODs), Dunkin Donuts Center POD, 1 La Salle Square, Providence, and Sockanosset POD, 100 Sockanosset Cross Road, Cranston.

Reservations for those age 65-74 will open Monday, February 22. In a press briefing this afternoon, RI DoH Director Nicole Alexander-Scott confirmed in response to a question from Motif that actual vaccinations for this age group would begin the following day, Tuesday, February 23.

Each eligible age group can schedule a vaccination appointment on the web – VaccinateRI.org – and, although the web is preferred, voice telephone is available for others – 844-930-1779 (weekdays 7:30am–7:00pm, weekends 8:00am–4:30pm) – unable to use the web. It is possible to make an appointment for oneself or for another eligible person using either system.

Alexander-Scott said that the website is a work in progress for which significant improvements are planned. “Another thing that I wanted to share is that the customer experience is going to be a little different today than it will be in the near future. Today, when you go into the system, you have to submit all your information. And then once you do that, you can see if any slots are available. We recognize that is not ideal, especially for someone who is going to be repeatedly looking in the system for an appointment. We are working to adjust that process so that it’s a little more user-friendly, wanting to get started first, and then we’ll continue to make the improvements as we go.”

“As of 12:30pm today [Wednesday, February 17], we have made 1,331 appointments, 86 of those over the phone and the rest of them online… at the two state-run sites we have activated,” Alexander-Scott said. “On the topic of the speed of vaccinating, another piece of good news is that we got a little bump in our allocation of vaccine. We had been at the mark of 16,000 doses a week, for the last few weeks. We found out yesterday that our weekly allocation from the feds is going to be increasing to 22,500 first doses. Part of this is an actual increase in Pfizer vaccine and part of it is that Pfizer made a change that allows six doses to be drawn from vials that we were previously getting five doses from. Again, very good news.”

The telephone system also is planned for improvement, Alexander-Scott said. “Right now when you call, the system is automated: You will be prompted to enter your phone number and then you will get a call back. Our goal is to get it set up so that when you call you get a live person right away; we expect to have this in place soon. Like everything with this pandemic, we’re looking forward and making improvements every step of the way as we go.”

“Appointments are currently open through February 27. Additional appointments may be added through the week as slots open. Appointments are expected to fill up quickly,” DoH said in a statement. In the next few weeks, RI expects to bring additional state-run sites into operation in the northern and southern regions, with a goal of doubling the daily capacity at state-run sites from 1,400 to 2,800.

The Dunkin Donuts Center POD is using the Pfizer vaccine and the Sockanosset POD is using the Moderna vaccine, both of which require two doses separated by 3 to 4 weeks: this is not important for first doses, but each recipient must get a second dose of the same type as their first dose. On the website, Alexander-Scott said, users are “signing up for the first dose as the starting point, and then as they are getting that first dose, we have as many steps in place as possible to help ensure that they enroll for the second dose right then and there, so that they’re able to come back.”

Screen capture of RI COVID-19 vaccine reservation web site for Sockanosset POD

Screen capture of RI COVID-19 vaccine reservation web site for Sockanosset POD

In addition to the two state-run PODs, vaccination is available from select retail pharmacies, and those 75 and older can schedule appointments at a retail pharmacy location: either CVS.com, using the CVS Pharmacy phone app, or calling 800-746-7287; or Walgreens.com/ScheduleVaccine or calling any local Walgreens. Municipalities are managing the scheduling process for additional local and regional clinics; contact each city or town directly.

Alexander-Scott said that the goal is to move eligibility in lock-step across all vaccination methods, opening up to each cohort at the same time. “We want to ensure that when we move to the next eligibility group, it is done consistently the same across all three channels from the pharmacies, as well as the local-regional approach, as well as the state run approach,” she said.

For those age 65 or older, Alexander-Scott recommends using the larger-capacity state-run PODs in order to reserve smaller-capacity local and regional for those age 75 or older who may have difficulty traveling or using the web. “I do want to encourage that for going to 65-plus, we really push people toward the larger volume sites with the state-run approach that is activated. Now, when that opens on Monday [for age 65 or older], it’s really ideal to go there because it is designed to move through hundreds of individuals with vaccinating. We want our local-regional approach – our municipalities have been doing a fantastic job – really catering to those 75 years of age and older, supporting them in accessing vaccine and being able to register as they need to, making sure that they can stay local and where they need to go. I just left the call with the municipal leaders where we’re continuing to say to keep that going, make sure that they are filling all of their 75-plus slots because they’ve done a great job getting vaccine out to them, and we really want to encourage those 65 and older to go to the state run sites. We’re activating it for high volume, we want to do it as quickly and as streamlined as possible,” Alexander-Scott said. DoH spokesman Joseph Wendelken said that the daily capacity at the Sockanosset POD is 900 doses and at the Dunkin Donuts Center POD is 500 doses.

It is not necessary to schedule more than one appointment because everyone scheduled is guaranteed to be vaccinated in their assigned time slot, so making multiple reservations disadvantages others eligible for access to the extremely limited supply of vaccine.

After those age 65 and older, vaccination will be available to everyone between 16 and 64 with an underlying health condition (kidney disease, heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, immuno-compromised) that puts them at high risk of complications from COVID-19 and then by age strata for otherwise healthy people. Everyone not immediately eligible to schedule a vaccination (that is, everyone 16 to 64) can sign up to be notified when they are eligible at portal.ri.gov – where many people already have an account if they previously signed up for COVID-19 testing.

Under the RI COVID-19 vaccination plan, persons age 75 or older are covered in the 5th and final sub-phase of Phase 1, and persons age 65-74 are covered in the 1st sub-phase of Phase 2. Moving into each sub-phase does not require completing any prior sub-phase; for example, persons age 65-74 will become eligible while some age 75 and older will not yet have been vaccinated.

In response to a question from Motif, Alexander-Scott said that for those younger than age 65, “Going to the next level should be sometime in March. We can certainly move that up as we continue to accelerate our ability to push vaccine out and have additional supply to be able to do that… So for right now we’re in that same mid-March time, but certainly with each day we’ll continue to assess as we’re pushing it out, we’ll hope to speed it up. So no updates yet, but we’ll certainly be making that known as we have it.”

Responding to criticism about the slow pace of vaccination compared to other states – as of yesterday, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), RI is tied for 48th place in doses administered per 100,000 population – DoH in a statement said, “Phase 1 of Rhode Island’s vaccination campaign has been focused on preserving the healthcare system and reaching groups most likely to be hospitalized – nursing home and other congregate residents, people in high-density communities, and older Rhode Islanders. While targeting these high-risk groups took more time than opening appointments to the general population from the outset, it also had the intended effect of preventing more severe cases of COVID-19, more significantly decreasing hospitalizations, and speeding up the reopening of our economy. Over the past month, Rhode Island saw a 46% decrease in hospitalizations, compared to 32% nationally and 22% in our neighboring states. And the decrease is even more significant among those in targeted groups. Because of this positive impact from Phase 1, Rhode Island can now move into Phase 2 and begin vaccinating every Rhode Islander by age group. This will allow for a significantly faster pace of vaccination.”

Alexander-Scott said at today’s press briefing, “We know that treatment with monoclonal antibodies is having a big impact. We know that our leadership with testing is an important component as well. But there is also clarity on the fact that our strategy is meeting the main objectives of the first portion of our vaccination campaign in Rhode Island. The first was to protect people in our nursing homes and other congregate settings, and the second was to make sure we have a health care workforce. Nursing homes are where we have seen the vast majority of our unfortunate deaths. And we need a healthcare workforce so that emergency care is there when you need it.”

In Providence: Falling in love on Federal Hill

If you took the chance to walk down Federal Hill on a cold February night a few years ago, you might have seen her showing him how to change a tire.

“He wanted to go out on our first date. I knew it was Valentine’s Day, but I didn’t want to bring it up, because I thought he knew what day it was, and that’s why he was asking me. I get to the date, and he says, ‘Did you know it was Valentine’s Day?’ He didn’t know, but here we are, no reservations anywhere and all the prices were up, because of what day it was. He hadn’t planned for any of that.”

They found a place that would take them, but the table was near the kitchen, and they couldn’t hear each other over the sound of the Valentine’s Day rush.

“You know how you’re on a bad date and you know it’s a bad date and they know it’s a bad date? That’s what this was. It was a bad date. I felt bad for him, to tell you the truth. He knew it was a disaster.”

Afterward, he tried to salvage the date by taking her to an upscale bar, and the two of them were walking in as a brawl was spilling out onto the street.

“Some guy thought some other guy was hitting on his girl, and they come flying out, and the manager’s behind them, and some of the other drunks were getting in on it. I think he caught a fist to the side of his head, if I remember it right. The side of his head or his cheek. But he got hit. Somebody called the police. Him and me were sitting on the sidewalk — me in this new dress I got — and I’m holding snow up to the side of his face to try and stop the swelling.”

When it was clear this date wasn’t just bad, but historically bad, he offered to walk her back to her car so they could call it a night.

“We got to talking as we were walking down Atwells, and he made me laugh more in that walk back, talking about the night we just had, then I had laughed in a long time. I had been through a lot that year, and I was not laughing a lot. My mom had gotten sick, and we lost a cousin of mine, and the only reason I went out on the date is because we had a mutual friend who told me that she thought the two of us would get along, but I wasn’t buying it. Then we’re going down the street, and I notice that I’m walking slower, because I want to keep talking to him.”

They got to his car first, and he offered to drive her to her car. That’s when she noticed the flat tire.

“I thought he was going to run away. He was so embarrassed. I said, ‘You got a spare?’ He said he could call AAA, but his card was expired. I told him, ‘Let’s walk to my car. I have a jack. I can change the tire.’ My father ran an autobody shop. I had everything I needed to change the tire. Changing a tire is nothing to me.”

She was expecting him to put up some sort of macho fight about it, but he was nothing but grateful. That resonated with her.

“I said, ‘If he puts up a fight about this’ — because I’ve had guys not like it when they find out I’ve worked on cars and I’ve played sports my whole life growing up, but he thought it was great. He kept complimenting me on being able to do something like that, and I said I could teach him, and next thing I know, we’re kind of flirting with each other about it.”

That was how they ended up making out in his car.

“I put a new tire on it. I may as well get paid for my work, right?”

That was several years ago, and this year, they celebrated Valentine’s Day in their apartment together.

“Every Valentine’s Day since then has been great. No problems, but that first one is my favorite, because it was the first, and because, even though it all went wrong, it didn’t matter. I didn’t realize it until we started that walk back, but I was never going to wind up with anybody else. He had me the minute I saw him standing outside that restaurant without a reservation. I thought, ‘Look at this dope,’ but what I really thought was, ‘That dope’s all mine.’”

If you’re looking for love in Providence, it might not look exactly how you thought it would, but that’s why it’s good to keep an open mind and a spare in your backseat.

On “Plenty”: The play to read right now

There are certain plays I reread every year, because in some ways, it’s the best way to remind yourself how to write.

David Hare has, sadly, become a rarely produced playwright. It’s partly because he’s not scared of being topical, leaning into the moment and creating something that’s so specific it feels out of place even a year or two later.

He’s more accessible (and much more emotional) than Stoppard, but Stoppard is more fun to perform, and much more witty, whereas Hare prefers unabashed intensity.

If I had to give you a title to introduce you to Hare, it would be Skylight, but it’s yet another love story between a younger woman and an older man (on Broadway it was Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy, which … eek), and I don’t think it gives you the full scope of Hare’s abilities.

For that, I would recommend Plenty.

And upon my annual re-reading of the play, I found that not only is it Hare at his best, but it’s a forty-three year-old play that is so perfectly suited, not to the moment we’re in, but the moment I believe we’re about to be in.

Plenty is the story of Susan Traherne, a former government agent, as she tries to adjust to life post-war, while flashing back to some of the most exciting and traumatic events of her past. The title refers to the promise of England after the war, that there would be “plenty.” Those promises fell flat, and those called to serve their country were told they should be glad those days are behind them, even as the rush from being of service lingers on.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about plays I’d like to see produced once the pandemic is over. Plenty could be on that list, but it’s also a play you could benefit from reading right now, because it’ll take some time to process.

It makes the unusual argument that when exiting a catastrophe, you might find yourself missing the circumstances of the catastrophe, and what it does to the human psyche to feel nostalgic for periods of hardship and danger.

We now have more information about trauma than we did when David Hare wrote Plenty. We understand that it’s not the conflict we miss, but the feeling of importance people might have as they navigate a significant moment in history, particularly if they assist in the battle for what’s right or put themselves in the line of fire.

As I read Plenty, Susan called up the image of frontline workers to me. People who give selflessly and who, when all this is over, will most likely be expected to deal with the years-long struggle of having lived through this time without much help, because it’s what was expected of them.

There’s a joke in a play I love (Bernard Slade’s Same Time, Next Year) where a woman complains to her lover that her husband misses being in the armed forces. Her lover replies that many men have fond memories of that time in their lives. She then counters by saying that her husband was a prisoner of war.

The idea of longing for a time in your life where you were woefully unhappy, but perhaps, also feeling of use, is a complex one. It’s one of those internal struggles that theater so often avoids tackling, because first you have to clear the hurdle of explaining the conflict to an audience, then explore the issue, then, most of the time, leave them without an answer.

You have to throw the word “bravery” around, but that’s probably as close as writing comes to bravery, and it’s what theater has the potential to do so well–better than any other medium. There’s something about witnessing a character in crisis while surrounded by people who might be in the midst of that same crisis themselves that lands in a different way.

We are all in the middle of a crisis. We can’t wait until we’re on the other side of it. And yet, nothing of this magnitude can be construed as simple.

When prisoners are released, many of them report that in addition to the expected troubles they face, the one that surprises them the most are the times they miss being locked up, because while logically they can understand that life on the outside is better, they had trained themselves to enjoy whatever they could about being imprisoned as a means of staying sane. It’s like silver lining survival.

I’ve had artists confess to me that during this period of time, while others have seen their creativity numb, they’ve made more work than ever before out of a lack of anything else to do. 

Will they be able to keep that up once the pandemic is over and that grind we all hated so much returns — and perhaps even intensifies?

Are there things about this period that we could possibly take in the after-times? Not just the obvious lessons we’ve learned about savoring life and community, but personal things about ourselves and how we make ourselves feel valuable?

Can we miss how good it felt to be the person we were during a war without missing the war itself?

What I’ve heard over and over again lately is “Wait until somebody writes a play about all this,” but as is so often the case, somebody already did and they didn’t even realize that’s what they were doing.

Ready for Reform: An interview with Representative Michelle McGaw

“I realized that there are many elected officials, my [former] representative included, who ran on a Democratic platform, but did not really represent the Democratic values,” says Representative Michelle McGaw of her decision to run in 2020. “People have had enough of elected officials who ‘go along to get along’ and want representation that is willing to take some of those difficult stances.”

McGaw represents District 71, encompassing parts of Portsmouth, southern Tiverton and all of Little Compton. She was one of the four Democrats who abstained in the vote for Speaker of the House at the start of session last month.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Alex Kithes (Motif): You ran for the first time this year. What inspired you to run?

Michelle McGaw: My decision to run was a long time in the making. I can remember trying to locate where my representative stood on controversial issues like gun safety legislation and abortion, and not being able to locate that information. I found that concerning. As a member of the RI Democratic Women’s Caucus, I spent a lot of time advocating for various issues at the State House and talking with elected officials. As I spent more time doing that I realized that there are many elected officials, my representative included, that ran on a Democratic platform, but did not really represent Democratic values.

The House Rules discussion in January 2019 was a wake-up call. When the Portsmouth Democratic Town Committee and the Little Compton Democratic Town Committee passed unanimous resolutions in support of rules reform, our representative refused to support the changes. Instead, he said he was 100% behind the speaker. It really emphasized that he was working for the speaker and not for the people of our district.

AK: You are heavily involved in your community of Portsmouth – you’re a member of the Portsmouth Democratic Town Committee, the Solid Waste and Recycling Committee, and the Charter Review Committee. What do you see as the relationship between your community-level work and your work
at the State House?

MM: Being an active member of my community is important to me. It allows me to get to know the people around me and to learn from them. Listening, learning and forging connections is an important part of community work and my work at the State House.

AK: You won a notable nearly 80% of the vote against an opponent who was endorsed by the outgoing incumbent. What do you believe are the reasons people came out and supported your campaign?

MM: I spend a lot of time listening to people and learning about what is most important to them. My campaign was really more of a listening tour from the very beginning. I think people appreciate someone taking the time to hear what they have to say. There are many people across our state who
feel that their voices and the needs of working-class families are not reflected in the decisions made in government. Phrases like “the old boys network” and “business as usual” came up a lot. It was made very clear to me that people have had enough of elected officials who “go along to get along” and want representation that is willing to take some of those difficult stances.

AK: More broadly, this year saw a lot of progressive General Assembly wins around the state. What factors do you think were responsible for that? Do you see it as a sign of a changing political climate in Rhode Island?

MM: People are struggling. In the last two presidential elections we saw a real shift in the conversation. There is a growing awareness of our economic disparity. I think that has a lot to do with the growing divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” The “progressive” values that have gotten so much attention in recent elections are really about making sure that people are able to earn a living wage so that they can afford to put food on the table, a roof over their head and afford health care for their
family. The past year has really highlighted just how important those basic human needs are as more of our neighbors find themselves struggling.

I am hopeful that this is a sign of a changing political climate. A big part of the progressive wins in RI that cannot be overlooked is the outpouring of support from many different organizations. That means that the people of RI took the time to get involved and donated money to help create change. They demonstrated what can happen when we all work together. The success of those actions in the last election can strengthen the resolve to push further, and I don’t think that active base is going anywhere.

AK: You abstained in the vote for speaker at the start of session last month. What motivated this decision? Where do you see existing leadership has failed, and where would an alternative do better?

MM: I want to be clear that I do not see myself as “challenging leadership.” Honestly, I am there to represent my community and what I hope for is to be able to work with all of my colleagues to the best of my ability. Sometimes that means voting in opposition to what is expected of me. But it is not about challenging leadership so much as it is doing what I think is best for RI, regardless of what that may mean to me personally.

Abstaining in the vote for the speaker was really about my need to see change and transparency before providing my vote of confidence. As I met with voters across my district they spoke of a genuine distrust for the current system. During this session I will be watching for some of the changes that my colleagues have assured me I can expect from this new leadership team. With those changes will come more confidence in the process by the people of our state and I can provide my vote of confidence in the future knowing that the needs of RI are being served. I look forward to working with our new leadership team and creating solutions for some of the real challenges facing Rhode Islanders.

AK: What are you planning on working on this term in the House?

MM: As a pharmacist, I find myself drawn to issues around access to health care. High insurance premiums, rising deductibles and copays, and limits to coverage are leaving too many of us uninsured or underinsured. Even those with health insurance are delaying or skipping treatments because there are just too many barriers in place.

I am also drawn to issues around climate and the environment. I recently submitted a bill (H5279) that would require any new energy plant siting proposals to include consideration of the state’s carbon emission reduction goals. This is important to all of us as we have seen a number of proposals to invest in fossil fuel infrastructure in past years. As we look for solutions to the 2019 natural gas outage on Aquidneck Island, it is particularly impactful to my community to be sure that our carbon emission goals are included in the decision-making process.

From the Land: An interview with local herbalist Susan Clements

Motif writer Caitlin Howle recently sat down with Susan Clements, who owns Earth and Ocean in Narragansett Bay. Susan is an herbalist who coaches her clients how to work with herbs, and the world around them, for everything from better health to food and skincare. 

Caitlin Howle (Motif): What is an herbalist, and what do they do?

Susan Clements: Simply, an herbalist is someone who works with herbs. They could be a community herbalist who supports those people searching for wellness; a person who formulates products; a forager collecting for food, medicine or making skin care; an herb grower, educator, someone who owns an herb store and helps a consumer find their way, or a caregiver within the family unit. 

CH: What about your journey? How did you come about herbalism, and what inspired you to continue your study/practice?

SC: As a child I was drawn to wild plants. In the fascination, I would dig them up, put them in pots and bring them around to my neighbors. The interest never waned, and in my 20s I began observing, recording and learning about wild plants. I kept a notebook of everything I found, identifying the plant, its growing environment, time of peak bloom. Initially, I didn’t realize they held medicinal or edible properties. However, in 1987, I fell upon a week-long program at the Omega Institute in NY. It was sheer magic, bringing together a long-time interest in wild plants, and years of volunteering in women’s wellness clinics (my dream back then was to become a lay midwife). In 1988, I like to think that Divine intervention stepped in. I was led to a friendship with Katherine Wheeler, who at the time had recently opened The Grateful Heart in Wickford, RI, and she presented me with an opportunity to rent a room, opening the first herb store in RI, The Herb Wyfe.  

CH: What are the benefits of herbalism? 

SC: So many! It supports a person to become an active participant in their wellness. The connection to the earth, nature, the cycle of seasons is deepened. Herbs can be a catalyst to open doors and bring us to experiences and connections that are profoundly life changing. Additionally, Herbalism is not only healing on a physical level, but also on a soul level. Yes, plants have chemical compounds that affect change, but they also carry a vibrational aspect that can shift the body to a higher place. 

CH: Can you tell me about herbalism and the practice in Rhode Island?

SC: Herbalism has grown tremendously in RI over the years. When I began here back in late ‘80s, it was considered very fringe. It really wasn’t until the ‘90s when attitudes began to change. Rosemary Gladstar, an internationally known herbalist, moved to New England from California in the late ‘80s, beginning a movement of awareness and acceptance. I was fortunate to both study with her in 1990 and be mentored by her for about 8 years. She frequently came to do lectures that I sponsored here in RI, fostering a local movement. Today in RI herbalism is no longer fringe! There are outstanding herbalists as practitioners in clinical settings, educators, growers and product formulators. 

CH: How do you feel using herbs and the practice of herbalism can help us in our world right now? 

SC: There is a connection between person and plants that is deeply profound and healing on a soul level. In many ways, one does not even need to ingest to receive the gifts of the green world. I have read that plants most closely relate to our nervous systems — regardless if they are a “nervine” (a plant that influences the nervous system in some way). In these current times, which are presenting as somewhat stressful, the plants support, ground and link us closely to nature. On the practical side of using herbs for wellness, there is one group of plants that are very important for our wellbeing. These group of herbs, referred to as “adaptogen,” have a purpose for helping our bodies to navigate through stress, holding us up supporting both the nervous and immune systems. 

CH: What should someone do if they want to become an herbalist or use more plants in their day-to-day lives? 

SC: I believe herbalism is a calling. Some life event, experience, connection to a different way of approaching wellness may be different reasons for the curiosity. Seek out a teacher who can help guide. For some, an introductory class (my Apothecary Pod is a good example) might spark a light that leads them to aromatherapy, exploring the wild plants via foraging, delving into deeper studies of medicinal herbalism studying the body systems, growing. The field is vast with so many fascinating twists and turns, and a variety of teachers who focus on the different aspects. 

In keeping things very simple for someone who wants to use herbs day to day, start a small garden in the spring. Take a wild plant walk, which might be offered nearby. Get to know several plants intimately — their growth habits, how might they be used in your favorite recipes, what are their uses for medicine, food or skin care. Even the simple plants people are familiar with, such as rosemary, have many places they can be useful. Come spring, go outside and say hello to the dandelion in the grass. Make a simple tea, hold an herb in your hand and breathe deep, dream with them under the pillow. Plants are our allies. The love vibration exudes from them. Mother Earth placed plants and humans here to explore a symbiotic relationship of honoring each other. Ultimately, and above all, the connection will deeply change the lives of all who enter this world of green.

Susan currently offers classes, consultations and many products made locally with Rhode Island herbs. Find out more at EarthOceanHerbals.com.