Holy Trinity school, NSHS to serve as vaccine sites

Holy Trinity school, NSHS to serve as vaccine sites

School and city representatives, including, from left, Woonsocket Teachers Guild Vice President Roxane Cary, WTG President Robert Stewart, Woonsocket Education Department Chief Operating Officer Alfred Notarianni, Supt. Patrick McGee, Fire Chief Paul Shatraw, and EMA Director Timothy Walsh tour Hamlet Middle School last Friday as they search for a location for the city’s vaccine distribution site. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)

As Rhode Island continues its COVID-19 vaccination efforts in nursing homes and regional distribution sites, local municipal leaders are preparing for the inevitable arrival of vaccine supply closer to home.

Last week, Fire Chief Paul Shatraw and EMA Director Timothy Walsh of Woonsocket toured several sites around the city as possible points of distribution on the local level. The goal, said Shatraw, is to be ready to distribute vaccine to the community once it becomes available to a wider group of people.

“We’re working the logistics right now, but we will certainly be ready when the time does come for us to bring it back to the municipalities,” he said.

Though the tour included several Woonsocket Education Department sites, including Hamlet Middle School and Woonsocket High School, Shatraw told The Breeze last Friday they’d most likely settled on using the former Monsignor Gadoury School at Holy Trinity Parish. Unlike the city-owned sites, the former school is currently vacant, allowing site workers to distribute the vaccine at any time of day without worrying about interaction with students.

“It kind of checked every box, so to speak, as far as parking and location and accessibility,” he said.

The Rev. Daniel Sweet, pastor at Holy Trinity Parish, said the building has already served as a COVID-19 testing site the past two Wednesdays through clinics run in conjunction with the National Guard. Sweet said he’s seen the “crippling” effects of the pandemic on his parishioners, particularly older parishioners living with anxiety.

“I’m very happy to be able to be a part of offering that to people whose lives have really been harmed by the anxiety,” he said.

While vaccination efforts are currently centered in healthcare settings and regional distribution points around the state, local officials anticipate municipal-based sites will play a larger role as more vaccine makes its way out to communities. These sites, Shatraw said, are expected to run concurrently with efforts at pharmacies, including Walgreens and CVS.

“It’s definitely going to be a complete community effort once we get this to the local level,” he said. “It’ll be police participating, fire participating, municipal employees participating, school employees.”

Shatraw said it’s too early to tell when the city will open its municipal vaccine site or who will be first on the list to receive one, with most of that information coming from the Rhode Island Department of Health. According to state publications, the second phase of vaccine distribution will include K-12 teachers and school staff, along with critical workers in high-risk settings, people with comorbid conditions, those staying in homeless shelters, and older adults.

In North Smithfield, the North Smithfield Emergency Management Agency has put out a call for volunteers as they prepare to open their own distribution site at North Smithfield High School. Col. Peter Branconnier, the town’s EMA director, said initial efforts will most likely focus on school staff, including bus drivers, bus monitors and custodial staff.

“It’s a town-wide effort now. Everybody’s working together as a group. We started meeting last week and getting preliminaries together,” he said.

As of Monday, Branconnier said he’s already received calls from 22 volunteers interested in working at the vaccination site. While many of these are retired or current medical staff, Branconnier said the town is accepting help from anyone willing to volunteer. Those who volunteer, he said, will be eligible to receive their vaccines before starting work at the site.

At the moment, he and his wife are volunteering at the regional distribution site in Smithfield, where first responders from throughout northern Rhode Island have received their vaccines over the past several weeks. Branconnier said the distribution efforts build on years of drills preparing for this type of scenario.

“That’s why we practice. We’ve done a drill every year now since 2010,” he said. “This particular event didn’t come into anybody’s mind, but we’re ready for it.”

The preparations come as many residents are eager to move to the next round of vaccine distribution. Robert Stewart, president of the Woonsocket Teachers Guild, said many teachers are fearful for their safety and anxious to return to normal life.

“It’s just torturous. Everyone wishes there were more than 14,000 vaccines per week. People are ready now,” he said, citing the number of vaccine doses RIDOH officials say the state is receiving every week.

Stewart said last week’s return to in-person learning for Woonsocket students in grades K-8 was met with mixed reactions from teachers, some of whom remain nervous about their risk of exposure. Woonsocket education officials are currently planning to return grade 9 students to the building on a hybrid schedule on Jan. 26, and grades 10-12 on Feb. 2.

“The numbers are so high that our teachers come back, but they’re fearful,” said Roxane Cary, WTG vice president.

Woonsocket Education Department staff are expected to play role in the distribution efforts. WED Chief Operating Officer Alfred Notarianni, who participated in last week’s site visits, said the department has put aside 50 laptops for the vaccine site and briefed facilities and technology staff that they’ll be expected to provide support.

“The only concern was if they have an opportunity to get a vaccine before they work at one of these,” he said.

While preparations are underway, local responders do not yet know when community-based distribution sites will open. The RIDOH has repeatedly said limited supply is slowing down vaccine efforts in Rhode Island and phase two will most likely start in late March or April.