The COVID-19 vaccine has been widely available for about three months at Rhode Island pharmacies and clinics, but doctor’s offices have been slow to administer them to their patients.

Only 12% of Rhode Island’s primary care offices surveyed offer the vaccinations in their offices, according to data presented Tuesday to the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee. 

The lack of availability of the vaccine at pediatricians’ offices could present barriers for parents to getting their children immunized before students return to their classrooms. While 77 % adults (18 and older) are at least partially vaccinated, fewer than half of residents ages 12-15 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, state health data shows.  (The FDA is expected to approve the Moderna vaccine for use in 12 to 17 year-olds by the end of this month. )

“At the beginning, it felt like the process to become a Covid-ready clinic was a bit overcomplicated,” Dr. Wilfred Giordano-Perez said. “It’s not that complicated but we have complicated the process. I think it has intimidated practices.”

It’s sometimes easier for primary care providers to send a patient somewhere else to get the vaccine, Giordano-Perez said, than to integrate vaccines into their own practice. He suggested finding ways to incentivize practices to offer the vaccine by listing their services on the state website and indicating which ones are accepting new patients. 

Vaccine storage and distribution initially presented hurdles for the state health department, since the vaccines arrive in packages of 100 vials which then need to be split up and properly stored until they are ready to use. The department has since created a central distribution center where the packages can be split up and distributed. 

Concern about wasting vaccines was initially a concern, though practices now can request as little as a single vial per day, said Tricia Washburn, chief of the state health department’s office of immunization. (State health officials now have a central distribution center where the packages can be split up and distributed.)  State reporting requirements of vaccines administered also “can be daunting” to some primary care practices, she said, especially for practices that still keep their medical records on paper. 

Dr. Thomas Bledsoe said he often gives his patients a “prescription” for the vaccine (even though none is needed) and directs them to a nearby lab or pharmacy, telling them “get the vaccine on your way home.”

Dr. Pablo Rodriguez said that obstetrical providers also should be offering the vaccine since pregnant women are at increased risk if they contract COVID-19. State health officials started the vaccination outreach efforts with primary care providers, Washburn said, but will send out surveys to OBGYN offices to gauge their interest. 

Eugenio Fernandez, a pharmacist who helped lead the COVID-19 vaccine drive in Central Falls, said he has been asking people who come for their vaccination why they decided to wait and get it now. Their responses: my job requires a vaccination; I needed it to travel for vacation; and parents whose children need to be vaccinated to participate in a group activity.

Kathy Heren, executive director for the Alliance for Better Long-Term Care, asked why the state is not mandating vaccination for students returning to the classroom. Is it because the FDA has authorized the vaccine only for emergency use?

“That’s part of the reason,” said Alysia Mihalakos, chief of the state’s Center for Emergency Preparedness and Response. Concerns expressed by parents here and in other states is another reason the state has not decided to make it mandatory.

Health reporter Lynn Arditi can be reached at larditi@thepublicsradio.org. Follow her on Twitter @LynnArditi