Rhode Island health officials have put in place new protocols aimed at safeguarding COVID-19 vaccination appointments after 1,400 people of color received false cancellation notices for a clinic last weekend. 

Access to clinic cancellations has been restricted to certain supervisory and leadership-level staff, and all staff have been retrained, pending a state police probe into the matter, Thomas McCarthy, executive director of COVID response at Rhode Island Department of Health, said this week.

State Police computer forensics specialists, McCarthy said,  should be able to pinpoint which computer the cancellation notices were sent from and why.  The department’s initial internal review did not determine “how exactly it happened,” though he noted that the ability to cancel an entire clinic was a new function that had recently been added to the system.

“This did not meet our standards for quality or for the experience for Rhode Islanders,’’ McCarthy said, “so now it's critical we get to the bottom of it.”

State health officials, who initially described the cancellation notices as a “glitch,” said  people who were sent the false cancellation notices were contacted to let them know that the notices were sent in error. But community leaders say they fielded hundreds of calls from people who had received the notices and didn’t know whether or not they would be vaccinated. 

Several community leaders also raised concerns about whether the cancellation notices might have been sent intentionally by someone trying to undermine efforts to prioritize vaccinations in Rhode Island to people of color. 

During a news briefing outside the vaccination clinic last Saturday at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, Governor Daniel J. McKee said that his administration will “find out how it happened and why it happened,’’ but added “I just don’t want to jump to any conclusions.”

The drive to prioritize people of color for vaccinations in Rhode Island follows efforts by the state to target residents by ZIP code and by population density, which has generally correlated with higher rates of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths. 

In Rhode Island, as in much of the country, hospitalizations and deaths related to COVID-19 have been higher among racial and ethnic minorities

Despite the confusion created last week by the false cancellation notices, 3,031 people were vaccinated at the Dunk on April 17, state health officials said, the largest single-day vaccination drive at the site. 

Rhode Island community groups are registering people of color for another mass vaccination clinic scheduled for this Saturday at the Dunk.  The clinic will be administering shots of the two-dose Pfizer vaccine, Joseph Wendelken, a health department spokesman, said. To register for an appointment visit www.vaccinateRI.org.

-- Health reporter Lynn Arditi can be reached at larditi@thepublicsradio.org

correction: a previous version of this story incorrectly reported the number of people vaccinated at the Dunk on April 17.