Rhode Island’s health director said Thursday that COVID-19 vaccinations for residents 75 and older who are not in nursing homes or other congregant care settings will begin early February, with residents 65 to 74 to begin scheduling appointments for shots by the middle or end of the month.

And starting Sunday, Rhode Island will lift its early closure requirements for restaurants, allowing dining facilities to remain open after 10 p.m. on weekdays, and after 10:30 p.m. on weekends. Bars must remain closed. 

The easing of restrictions comes as Rhode Island’s three key indicators of the virus -- new COVID-19 cases, new hospital admissions, and positivity rate -- are all trending down. Rhode Island’s seven-day positivity rate has fallen to 3.7%, the second-lowest in New England after Vermont, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. New cases and hospitalizations, however, remain well above the state's own safety threshold.

“This is very encouraging’’ Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, the state's health director, said during a briefing. “It’s the exact direction we need to go.”

However, the director urged residents to remain vigilant about masking, social distancing, noting that new, more contagious variants of the virus are already showing up in neighboring states.  “We are not out of the woods yet,’’ she said.

Beginning this weekend, about 5,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine will be used to vaccinate people 75 and older who are listed in Rhode Island’s emergency registry, used to track people who would need additional assistance during an emergency, Alexander-Scott said. People 75 and older who are listed in the registry “will be contacted,” she said, and “do not need to take any action to schedule appointments.” 

Information about how residents 75 and older who are not in the emergency registry can sign up to be vaccinated will be disseminated through the news media when it becomes available, Alexander-Scott said. 

Residents ages 16 to 64 deemed high-risk due to certain underlying health conditions also will begin to be vaccinated starting in mid-March, according to the state’s estimated vaccine timeline. (A list of the underlying conditions includes kidney disease, heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, and those who are immunocompromised.)

Nearly 66,800 of the roughly 800,500 adults in Rhode Island -- about 8% -- have received their first of two doses of vaccine, according to state health department data. Of those, nearly 23,000 people -- about 3 % of all adults in the state  -- had been fully vaccinated as of Jan. 29.

The first phase of the vaccination effort focused on protecting the stability of the health system, Alexander-Scott said, by vaccinating hospital employees and other health care workers and first-responders, as well as nursing home residents. Phase two will focus on those most at-risk for hospitalizations and death due to COVID-19, she said. The start of phase two, she said, depends on the availability of the vaccine. Access to the vaccine will be based on three factors: age, health risk and geography.

“The approach we are taking is 100% grounded in the science and the data of protecting people most at risk,’’ Alexander-Scott said. 

The third factor -- geography -- will prioritize residents of communities shown to have greater risk for COVID-19 related hospitalizations and deaths, she said, such as Central Falls, as well as parts of Pawtucket, Providence, North Providence, and Cranston.

The residents of certain communities are at elevated risk for COVID-19-associated hospitalizations and deaths. Due to this disparity and given that minimizing COVID-19-associated hospitalizations is critical to Rhode Island’s ability to manage the pandemic and reopen the economy, vaccine distribution will continue in these communities. They include Central Falls and parts of Pawtucket, Providence, North Providence, and Cranston.

For example, the rate of hospitalizations for COVID-19 in Central Falls is 67% higher than the statewide average, Alexander-Scott said, and  58% higher than the statewide average in Providence. Prioritizing those communities is “the right thing to do ethically,’’ she said, “and it’s the right thing to do to manage this pandemic effectively.” 

As more vaccine becomes available, she said, people will become eligible for the vaccine in the following order: ages 60-64; ages 50-59; ages 40-49; and ages 16-39.

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

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the number of adults in Rhode Island who have been vaccinated.