Tri-County’s health center leads in effort to vaccinate hardest-hit communities

Tri-County’s health center leads in effort to vaccinate hardest-hit communities

Casey Sardo, a dietician at the Tri-County Community Health Center and a nursing student at Rhode Island College, fills vials of the COVID-19 vaccine last Thursday at the clinic. (Breeze photo by Kayla Panu)

NORTH PROVIDENCE – The Tri-County Community Health Center’s, 33 Maple Ave., COVID-19 vaccine clinic is proving to be a well-oiled machine as it helps meet the increased demand with more local zip codes added to the hardest-hit communities lis.

“In general, the feedback from our patients in the community is that they absolutely love it,” said Dr. Wilfredo Giordano-Perez, Tri-County medical director. “They feel like it’s a much warmer, cozier environment to come in. We sit by their side, hold their hand for 15 minutes if they need us to.

“We’ve had several people with a history of anaphylaxis, who have been told not to get their vaccine but took the risk to come,” he said. “We assign a nurse to them. It’s just amazing to see the reaction that some people have.”

Tri-County began vaccinating its health center staff at the end of January and into February, said Jennifer Papagolos, marketing and public relations director for Tri-County Community Action Agency.

Last Thursday, April 1, was the fourth vaccine clinic for North Providence and some Providence residents at the health center.

Papagolos said they transformed the gym at the health center to accommodate the vaccine clinic, which started vaccinating residents about a month ago.

Giordano-Perez is on the governor’s vaccine advisory committee, which he said helped open the health center as a vaccine clinic. As of last week, they started vaccinating more North Providence residents as the town was placed in a greater priority status.

“So we’re serving Tier 1 communities, so they are primarily southern Providence and North Providence,” Dr. Giordano-Perez said. “We get an allotment from the Department of Health every week somewhere between 600 and 700 additional doses, to where we can vaccinate those high-density communities.”

With the high-density community designation in place for such zip codes as 02904 and 02908, covering parts of North Providence, the health center offers the Moderna vaccine to people ages 18 and up regardless of medical conditions.

After adjusting for age differences, the hospitalization rates in Rhode Island’s hardest-hit communities is roughly 3.5 times higher than in the rest of the state, according to officials.

People are signing up at www.vaccinateRI.org. If a person is not computer savvy there is also a phone number to call to get an appointment, 844-930-1779.

As for how the clinic runs, they have it down to a science. Giordano-Perez said they transformed the gym into a clinic where they can vaccinate about 45 people at a time, and they generally get through 100 vaccines per hour or more.

What makes this clinic unique is that most of the people working here are volunteers.

“Each volunteer is vetted through a process, an application process,” Papagolos said. “Some of our volunteers handle just the administrative functions, moving the clients through the line and we also have a secondary process for the staff to actually administer the vaccine.”

The volunteers who handle the administrative functions or keep patients company do not have to have a medical background. Papagolos said that as the clinics continue each week, they get more and more volunteers.

Two such volunteers last Thursday were Nina Manganaris and Sydney Brousseau. It was Brousseau’s first day volunteering. They both work for the Family Care Community Partnership, which is a part of the agency. Manganaris is a social worker by trade and Brousseau works in social justice.

“It’s a huge public health issue and just to be part of the solution feels really good,” Manganaris said about why she volunteers.

Brousseau had a more personal reason for wanting to be involved.

“My grandmother just died from COVID, from pneumonia she got from COVID in January,” she said. “So being able to come and give people vaccinations who are around the same age as her, knowing that she couldn’t get one, really is a big difference.”

Last Thursday morning, they started seeing patients who were scheduled for their second doses at 8:30 a.m. By the middle of the morning, they took a break, restocked and cleaned, and prepared for round two, which included first doses.

A line of people formed outside to get their temperatures checked. From there they are welcomed inside, checked in and confirmed, signing a consent form.

“We go in and answer any questions they may have about the vaccine,” Giordano-Perez said. “We let them know it’s Moderna, repeat it over and over to make sure. We confirm if its their first or second dose. We talk about the side effect profile and (what the) immune response will be after each dose. And then we have them stay on site for 15 minutes if they don’t have any history of anaphylaxis. If they do have a history, we stay with them for 30 minutes. We set a little timer and when they timer goes off, they’re instructed to go to the checkout desk to get vaccine card and get scheduled for their next appointment in four weeks. Then we give out goodies.”

The goodies, which are set up on a table in the back of the gym, include water, vaccination pins and stickers, information on how to become a patient at Tri-County, hand sanitizer, wipes and masks.

“It’s been going extremely well,” Papagolos said. “They really have this down to a science to move clients through very quickly.”

Among the hundreds of people who have come through each week, some have stuck out.

“I think the most powerful one for me that happened recently was we had this sweet 92-year-old woman who was told by her PCP that she cannot get the vaccine,” Giordano-Perez told The Breeze. “She had a chart documentation of about 10 medications that she’s had anaphylactic reactions to and been hospitalized for that. And so I called her and we talked over the phone for about 15 or 20 minutes. I told her she could come on in, that’s not a reason not to get the vaccine, and that sorry your PCP told you not to get it. We want you to get it and we’ll be by your side the entire time.”

They kept a nurse by her side, having the woman stay for 45 minutes for both doses.

“She did beautifully,” he said. “And after her second dose, she just broke down into tears. She was so grateful. She’s 92 years old, she doesn’t have any family left. She’s been homebound and pretty much alone, isolated for the last year. And now she can finally go on a walk. And she’s been waiting for this vaccine to go on a walk. She thought it was never going to come.”

Giordano-Perez said there’s still some misunderstanding out there about who can get the vaccine and who can’t. The reality is, almost everybody can unless they had a bad reaction to the first dose.

“As long as you have the support staff. We have a ton of epipens and we’re ready to go. Haven’t had one reaction, so fingers crossed,” he said.

Kris Turgeon, of Providence, was one of the many last Thursday to receive her first dose of the vaccine. She said she came in nervous and left feeling really good.

“It was amazing,” she said about her experience. “It was easy to sign up, easy to get, and everyone here has been so nice. I’m so relieved.”

Despite not being paid for running the clinic and losing money not seeing patients for two days, the staff of Tri-County said they happy to be doing something good for the community.

“We’re vaccinating more and more every week, so that’s really exciting,” Giordano-Perez said.

Both Dr. Giordano-Perez and Papagolos said that they usually end up with extra doses at the end of the day. So throughout the day, family members or caretakers who come with the patient getting vaccinated can put their name on a wait list and may receive a call later in the day to come back and get their own vaccine.