Behind the scenes at Woonsocket’s state-run vaccination site

Behind the scenes at Woonsocket’s state-run vaccination site

Rhode Island Medical Reserve Corps Executive Officer Brooke Lawrence demonstrates to Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and City Councilor David Soucy how the check-in process works during a tour of the state-run vaccine site in the former Sears department store last Friday. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)

WOONSOCKET – Christina Larisa, a former nurse and volunteer at the state-run vaccination site at Walnut Hill Plaza, gets emotional when talking about the early days of the pandemic.

Though she now works in private industry, Larisa said she keeps in close touch with friends working in hospitals and felt awful not being able to contribute.

“The stories were terrible,” she said.

Larisa, who lives in Barrington, decided to do something about it. In December, she began volunteering at a COVID-19 testing site as a member of the Rhode Island Medical Reserve Corps. Last week, she was transferred to the state-run vaccination site in the former Sears building. She was one of half a dozen volunteer vaccinators working at the site last Friday, April 2, when local officials and members of the media participated in a tour.

Brooke Lawrence, executive officer of the RI Medical Reserve Corps, said the site will eventually be able to offer 15,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine every week.

“We’ve built a whole bunch of horsepower here. We’ve built it to be very efficient,” he said.

Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, City Councilor David Soucy, Deputy Fire Chief Roger Perrault, Woonsocket Police Lt. Edward Doura and members of the press toured the 50,000-square-foot facility on its second day of operations. The former Sears opened as a vaccination site for the first time on March 28, offering its first 400 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to the public that afternoon.

The vacant department store was a rush of activity last Friday as volunteers prepared for their second day of administering vaccinations. According to Lawrence, the site was set to administer 500 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires only one dose.

While the site is currently open only for limited hours, Lawrence said he anticipates ramping up to full capacity as supply increases.

“If you do the math, you basically have between 1.7 million and 2 million doses that need to be given (statewide),” he said.

Though statewide vaccination efforts have picked up over the past several weeks, Woonsocket remains last out of municipalities in Rhode Island for the share of its residents who’ve received either a first or second dose of the vaccine. As of last Tuesday, 28.6 percent of residents had received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 19 percent were fully vaccinated. By contrast, 75.1 percent of New Shoreham residents had received their first dose, along with 57.8 percent of Jamestown residents and 57.6 percent of East Greenwich residents.

Other urban communities in northern Rhode Island are also outpacing Woonsocket, with 34.5 percent of Pawtucket residents, 47.5 percent of Central Falls residents and 32.3 percent of Providence residents receiving their first dose as of last Tuesday.

In the future, Lawrence said, residents looking to receive a vaccine at the Sears site will be able to make an appointment at www.vaccinateri.org and register for a particular type of vaccine. The site will eventually offer all three types of currently approved vaccines, he said, with separate areas to keep track of which vaccine is being administered.

“We have a lot of capacity. We just need vaccine,” he said.

When he’s not managing vaccine operations, Lawrence, an East Greenwich resident, works as vice president of sales for a medical equipment company. The Medical Reserve Corps, he explained, was founded nationally in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The Rhode Island branch only had about 2,200 members at the start of the pandemic last year, he said, but has since expanded to include 8,000 volunteers.

“We have truck drivers, we have plumbers,” he said. “People take what they do for a living and they come out and do it on the weekends to make a difference.”

The Medical Reserve Corps is currently staffing two of the state’s five mass vaccination sites. They also staff several COVID-19 testing sites, including one next door in the former Olympia Sports unit. The testing site, said Lawrence, operates seven days per week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is open to both walk-ins and those who make an appointment at www.portal.ri.gov. Testing, he said, continues to be an important piece of the state’s efforts to fight COVID-19.

“It’s really important that we don’t take the foot off the accelerator for testing,” he said.

In addition to medical volunteers, the Sears site has non-medical staff members to assist with check-in, observation and helping recipients schedule their second doses. Many of the volunteers, Lawrence said, are students from Brown University and other local colleges. It takes about 35 individuals to run the site at one time.

Lawrence said they make use of a National Guard-managed waitlist to administer vaccines left over at the end of a shift.

“We have a zero waste policy. I don’t care if we have to call the chief or the mayor to say send me an arm,” he said.

The locally-run site at the former Monsignor Gadoury School held its final vaccination clinic this week as local officials encourage residents to sign up for a vaccine at pharmacies or one of the state-run sites other state-run sites. Appointments for the state-run sites are typically made available during the prior week as hours are finalized.

Comments

Wow so Woonsocket ranks dead last in percentage of people vaccinated at 29.2% partially and 19.9% fully. So the mayor and the governor are patting themselves on the back for opening a new site and closing another. The residents of Woonsocket deserve better support for state politicians. Barrington, East Greenwich, Jamestown have 1st doses all above 50%. I guess we know the priorities of the Governor. The mayor and the leaders of Northern RI should be lobbying the Governor and department of health every day to allocate more doses to Northern RI to fix the privileged of RI. I just love the money the state wasted on mailers that explain the plan and the science of how we are going to vaccinate people and then we just give shots to groups with the biggest vote and lobby. First it was the police and city employees, then the teachers union and now the veterans. Also we can not forget the political donors in Barrington and East Greenwich. In south providence sites where opened but all the appointments and shots where given to the privileged East Side residents. This is such a sad reflection on so called leaders.