Johnston vaccination pod gives first shots

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The Johnston Recreation Center’s vaccination pod opened Wednesday mornings as seniors 75 years and older waited eagerly in their cars for the first appointments to begin.

Mayor Joseph Polisena offered a brief tour of the facility, which was filled with socially distant volunteers, police officers, firefighters and EMTs serving their role in the process. Patients are signed in and have their temperatures taken upon arrival, at which point they proceed into the second basketball court, where volunteers will confirm their identity and direct them to a table.

On one court, nurses and pharmacists drew the vaccine as the firefighters next door took their seats to administer the shots. After their inoculations, patients head to the first basketball court and wait between 15 and 30 minutes with a pair of firefighters monitoring for adverse effects. The longer period is reserved for those with EpiPens or a history of allergic reactions.

The trip is almost complete at that juncture, as patients will then schedule their next appointment exactly one month after the first shot. Volunteers will assist with that step, as others await them at the exits to usher them out into the parking lot. Johnston police officers were on hand outside to direct traffic.

“We’ve got everything under control,” Polisena said, overlooking chairs stationed 6 feet apart for patients to wait their 15 to 30 minutes.

Polisena said Thursday morning that the process was “flawless” and there were “no hiccups.” He thanked the first responders, volunteers and Town Hall workers who made it possible.

The pod’s setup drew a positive review from Dr. John Stoukides, vice chairman of the Department of Medicine and chief of the Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine at Roger Williams Medical Center. Polisena and Stoukides are the co-chairs of incoming Gov. Dan McKee’s transition COVID-19 advisory group.

Stoukides said the center was a prime location for vaccination because it “can move a ton of patients through” and is easily accessible for the elderly and those with disabilities.

“You’ve got to make it easy, it’s got to be on the first floor,” Stoukides said of an ideal pod design. “It’s got to have easy parking. It’s got to wheelchair accessible. All the stuff we have here. A site like this, we have one in every town. We’ll get everyone vaccinated. It’s a perfect setup.”

Johnston Fire Chief Peter Lamb had “all the confidence in the world” that his firefighters were ready for the job. He said that since they hook up countless IVs every day, “the mechanics are all the same” and patients shouldn’t worry.

“What happened is we sent a bunch of folks up to Smithfield, to kind of shadow their people to replicate what we see here today,” Lamb said. “We feel very comfortable. Someone else has made some mistakes, so we’ve got those plans built in so we don't replicate them.”

Lamb said he also felt a sense of pride seeing his force helping to save lives in Johnston.

“You know how the mayor feels about this,” Lamb said. “This is Johnston, and the firefighters that take care of the folks every day are out here taking care of them in this setting, and it’s certainly different.”

Stoukides criticized the state’s vaccine rollout thus far as “sluggish,” but noted that McKee has a “huge commitment” to turning Rhode Island’s lackluster figures around. The New York Times vaccination tracker shows the Ocean State last in percentage of people who have received at least one shot, and in the middle of the pack for two shots. Rhode Island is tied with Alabama for last in doses used, with only 63 percent of inoculations allotted being used thus far. That figure is 14 percent below the national average.

“No one’s going to deny the fact that it’s really been pretty poor,” Stoukides said. “I had great hopes that we’re the smallest state, we can get everyone vaccinated and move on, but a lot of times it’s easy to look at it, but when you’re in the midst of it, it’s a little harder. I honestly think that we can do a lot better, and we’re going to do a lot better.”

Stoukides said giving a vaccine is easy, but the process becomes more difficult when considering the logistics of registering residents and ensuring people don’t jump the line. He said the state’s sign-up website “has a lot of information” that he would like to see streamlined a bit to make sure those who aren’t “computer literate” can easily register.

“[We’re] trying to make it easy for the frail populations that really need it,” Stoukides said. “The elderly are hard, too, because they’re not computer literate. The undocumented people in the state because they’re not computer literate and they’re afraid to register. … What I need is to see people getting the shot.

“I understand we’ve got to do the right data reporting and everything, but we’ve got to think through it and think about the roadblocks that we’ve put up that have put us 50th in the country, get rid of those, make it simple, make it fast, make it equitable and get the right people vaccinated as quick as we can.”

Stoukides said the incoming administration is examining what facets of the rollout have succeeded and failed, hoping to get “the right people involved” while practicing accountability. He said it’s important to keep the process community-based and local, allowing towns to establish pods that can get all of its residents vaccinated in a timely manner.

“Every dose that comes in should be given as quick as it comes in, because a dose of vaccine doesn't prevent disease sitting in a fridge somewhere,” Stoukides said. “We’ve just got to get it out there, and big sites – yeah, they’re nice. They’ll be great for the 45-year-olds that want to go in. Little places like this, this is what we need. We need to keep it local, community-based. Get the towns involved. They’re the ones who care about their citizens, and they’ll get them all vaccinated.”

Both Stoukides and Lamb have been vaccinated already, and neither had a negative experience. Stoukides said he felt fine, while Lamb said the worst he suffered was a sore arm and a headache. Stoukides’ message was simple for those who feel wary: “Just do it.”

“Even if you feel sick, people who have had COVID tend to feel a little off for about six hours after the dose. Bottom line is, a few hours of feeling sick is better than being on a respirator. I take care of COVID patients every day in the hospital, and I’ve seen so many of them die really impaired from it,” he said. “It’s just not worth it, for something as simple as getting a shot in the arm.”

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