'All hands on deck'

Johnston recreation center set to begin vaccinations Feb. 17


The vaccination pod at the Johnston Recreation Center is set to begin inoculating residents 75 and older on Wednesday, Feb. 17, according to Mayor Joseph Polisena and Police Chief Joseph Razza.

Polisena and Razza gave a joint interview at the recreation center on Monday, giving an overview of who will service the pod and how patients will be handled before, during and after receiving their shot. Polisena said the town expects to receive 200 doses per week initially, and he will be among the vaccinators administering them.

Vaccines will be given on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Both Razza and Polisena urged registrants not to arrive more than 10 minutes before their appointment.

The mayor said tables will be set up at the middle basketball court, where volunteers will check patients in and direct them where to go. He said the town is still waiting on the state to provide a web link for registrations, at which time residents 75 and older may try to sign up.

“The vaccination tables will have everything that they need,” Razza said. “They’ll have alcohol prep pads and all that stuff in order to vaccinate. The way the vaccination works, it’s all computerized. The computer gives an appointment time, you show up at your appointment time, you put the person’s name and you make sure that they can get the shot. There’s an algorithm to make sure that they’re not going to have an allergic reaction or whatever it is.”

After being vaccinated, people will be monitored in the bleachers for 15 minutes to ensure they don't have an adverse reaction. The time is extended to 30 minutes for those with allergies, a history of reactions or an EpiPen.

Polisena said that once the town has access to a registration portal, he will issue a robocall alerting residents. He said they would have to “hurry up,” though, since the town is only getting a couple hundred doses per week to start and there are more than 3,000 residents over 75 in Johnston. He did note that the town is looking to go into congregate settings such as Cedar Springs, Cherry Hill Apartments, Ralph aRusso Manor, Simmons Village and Allegra Court to administer vaccines separately.

Registration will be incumbent upon staff at those locations.

Razza, who doubles as the town’s emergency management director, said “we’ve all been killing ourselves” getting the pod established. Polisena lauded Razza and the other first responders, but said the town is “held hostage by the state.”

“We base our vaccines and our distribution on what the state gives us,” Polisena, the co-chair of incoming Gov. Dan McKee’s COVID-19 response team, said. “Unfortunately, it’s just not coming in. I don’t know what’s going on. It’s not good. The state should be getting at least 15,000 to 20,000 doses a week, right? There’s 1,050,000 people. If 500,000 people want to get vaccinated, it’s going to be a while. So we’re targeting the populations now 75 or older, which that’s what we’re required to do by the state Department of Health.”

Polisena said Town Hall receives anywhere between 100 and 150 phone calls a day from anxious residents who are “frustrated” about the rollout. He said he doesn’t blame them, but he express confidence in McKee to work with the federal delegation to increase doses coming in to Rhode Island.

“My firefighters stand ready, willing and able,” Polisena said. “My firefighters, I equate them to a 747 on a runway revving their engines, they’re ready to go. They’re ready to participate and help the citizenry of this town, and I’m very proud of them to do that.”

Polisena said he has pushed for towns to establish local pods, saying numerous other municipalities want to go in that direction as well. He used a recent example where North Providence and Pawtucket were given vaccine allocations, but elderly residents had to get to Neutaconkanut Hill in Providence to receive them.

“Doesn’t make any sense, and you don’t want the elderly traveling, especially with the snow and the ice,” Polisena said. “So we’re asking that we want to do our local pod, so we can take care of our citizens in town. As Dan McKee’s co-chairman of his COVID team, I really pushed for that, that we get into the local pods. There was some resistance from the state.”

Polisena said he is willing to open the center to neighboring towns that need a hub, as long as they brought in their own volunteers to steer the ship.

“Listen we want to take care of the people in Johnston first, but if Scituate, Foster, Glocester, they feel they don’t have a facility like this, this is 28,000 square feet,” Polisena said. “The curtain’s going to be up. We’ll have plenty of room, the bleachers will be set – we’ll mark the bleachers with tape, like they are now, 6 feet apart. With 200 people, we should get through with no issue.”

Polisena thanked Superintendent of Johnston Schools Bernard DiLullo, who is providing 30 computers for the “technology intensive” pod. He said both the town and school IT departments will be on hand to troubleshoot any potential issues. Polisena added that, if teachers are given increased vaccine priority, their inoculations could be handled in a matter of “a couple of days.”

“We’re lucky we have this facility. It’s all one level, so you don't have to worry about anyone in wheelchairs,” Razza said. “It’s big enough for social distancing. This actually wasn’t a part of our original pod plan, it was another location, but we re-did the pod plan and they granted it, so we’re going to use this instead. The mayor’s been hands-on, obviously, as he always is, and it’s just a great team effort. It really is.”

Polisena said that he would like to see the state establish a plan for vaccinating homebound residents, too. He said that, if he was allowed, he would accompany a group of firefighters and a police officer to homes, administer the shot and move on to the next resident.

“There is no plan. We want to take care of those people, and I tell those people, they keep calling, but they have to realize our hands are tied,” Polisena said. “We can’t do anything once we get the vaccine. Once we get the link to the website for them to register, they need to go on right away. It’s first come, first served. Whoever comes first that registers, they’re obviously entitled to get their shots.”

Polisena said that it’s been an “all hands on deck” effort throughout the town to get the pod off the ground, with the fire and police departments, schools, town workers and Department of Public Works operating in unison. Razza has seen that first-hand, too.

“Everyone has a stake in this,” he said. “Everyone’s been supportive.”


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