By DANIEL KITTREDGE The need to move rapidly created significant logistical issues, and the winter storm that descended on the region forced delays in the start of the program. But more than 1,500 Cranston residents age 75 and older have now registered
The need to move rapidly created significant logistical issues, and the winter storm that descended on the region forced delays in the start of the program.
But more than 1,500 Cranston residents age 75 and older have now registered to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, Mayor Ken Hopkins said Monday, and the first doses were scheduled to be administered at a regional clinic in East Greenwich on Wednesday morning.
“I think we have a good handle on it,” Hopkins said of the hurried effort to distribute an initial batch of 390 vaccine doses to the city’s oldest citizens.
The city is slated to begin receiving 500 weekly doses of vaccine starting Feb. 16, the mayor said, and plans are in the works for locations within Cranston to house clinics going forward. Additional volunteers are being sought to assist with the ongoing rollout, which will be opened up to new age groups on a descending basis (those 65 and older will be the next eligible cohort, for example).
Hopkins was clear, however, in expressing his displeasure with state’s handling of the situation to this point: “I think the state really dropped the ball on it.”
The race to register Cranston seniors for COVID shots began last week, when state health officials notified municipal leaders across Rhode Island that a relatively small number of doses – roughly 5,000 in all, according to Department of Health spokesman Joseph Wendelken – would be made available to begin the process of vaccinating residents age 75 and older.
“We are working to get all older adults vaccinated against COVID-19 as quickly as possible,” Wendelken wrote in a Jan. 29 message to media members. “Widespread COVID-19 vaccination of people 75 years of age and older is scheduled to begin in early to mid-February. However, a small amount of vaccine … was identified to start this population a little sooner, starting this weekend. That vaccine was allocated to cities and towns based on the percentages of their populations that are 75 years of age and older.”
The process of getting those doses into people’s arms, meanwhile, was left almost entirely left up to municipal leaders.
In a nutshell, cities and towns were asked to create a list of eligible residents and schedule them for vaccination appointments during set timeframes at one of the five regional clinics run by the state. There was no specific guidance, however, on how to compile the final list of vaccination recipients or schedule their visits to the clinics.
“I just wish there was a better plan at the state level,” he said, adding: “That was frustrating. Every mayor and town manager was frustrated.”
Cranston’s timeframe was Feb. 1-3, just days away at the point the city was notified by the state. Its assigned clinic site is the Swift Community Center in East Greenwich, which the mayor noted is difficult to access for some of the city’s older residents.
Hopkins said he convened an emergency meeting with city department heads on Jan. 28 to formulate a plan. Ultimately, the decision was made to hold an enrollment period for residents meeting the criteria – asking them to call in and provide basic information, including an email address – after which the city would schedule appointments on an oldest-to-youngest basis.
“To me, that was the fairest way of doing it,” Hopkins said. “It takes away the ‘who knows who’ problem.”
While neighboring Warwick opted to make its registration process web-based, Hopkins said Cranston chose to utilize a more labor-intensive phone registration because “a lot of people that are 75 and older have trouble with computers and getting online.”
Despite the short notice, more than 1,500 people called to register in the hours after the window opened Friday morning, Hopkins said. As a result, the dozen phone lines at the Cranston Enrichment Center that had been dedicated to the effort were quickly “inundated.” Additional lines were added at City Hall, and Hopkins and his staff in the mayor’s office helped to answer to the calls, which continued until 7:30 p.m. that night.
Asked about the responses he received from the 25 to 30 people whose calls he fielded, Hopkins said some were “surprised” to be speaking with the mayor. Others were “very grateful” to have gotten through after encountering busy signals on repeated tries. Some eagerly shared personal stories or updates on the health of loved ones.
“Sometimes it was a little too much information,” Hopkins added with a laugh.
On Saturday, approximately 30 volunteers gathered at the Cranston Enrichment Center to begin calling back registrants to schedule their vaccination appointment. Hopkins said Acting Fire Chief Jim Warren, who serves as the city’s emergency management director, oversaw the work, which led to 340 appointments booked on Saturday and the remaining 50 scheduled by noon on Sunday.
On Sunday, as a significant winter storm approached the region, the state announced that the regional vaccination clinics in East Greenwich, Bristol and Providence would be closed Monday. The other two clinics, in Smithfield and Narragansett, had not been scheduled to accept patients that day. Hopkins said the city was also informed that Tuesday’s appointments would need to be rescheduled due to the continued inclement weather in the forecast.
Hopkins said the city had taken the storm and the likely delay into consideration in its planning process, leading to most of the appointments being scheduled for the last day of the three-day window. Those who had Monday or Tuesday appointments are being rescheduled for Feb. 7-8.
“Wednesday is still a go, and we had the foresight to schedule most of the callers for Wednesday,” the mayor said.
The 390 appointments that have been scheduled cover Cranstonians between the ages of 86 and 95, Hopkins said. In the days ahead, any city resident over 75 who did not register during the initial window can call the Cranston Enrichment Center or City Hall to be added to the list for a future appointment.
Looking ahead, Hopkins said the city is working to address issues with the initial registration and scheduling window – particularly the difficulties callers experienced in getting through. Other challenges are ahead, including bringing the vaccine recipients back for their second dose. The mayor estimated there are between 4,000 and 5,000 Cranston residents over age of 75, although he noted many of those people will be vaccinated as part of separate rollouts targeting congregate living spaces and senior housing facilities.
Messaging is another area of focus the mayor, who has released video messages on social media and appeared on WPRO and WPRI in recent days. The messaging component will also be vital moving forward as the city notifies additional age groups about their eligibility and how to register.
Hopkins also said he and other mayors and town administrators were scheduled to have a Zoom call with Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee – who is poised to succeed Gov. Gina Raimondo within days – on Monday afternoon to discuss the situation further. The mayor said he spoke with McKee about the vaccine rollout on Sunday and had a “great discussion about how we’re going to move forward with this.”
“McKee was right on with what we’re doing,” the mayor said. “He gets it … I can’t wait for him to take over.”
In terms of local vaccination sites, Hopkins said the Cranston Enrichment Center, Pastore Youth Center and various school gymnasiums are among the locations being discussed.
“By the time it’s ready to come out in major doses, we’ll have local sites,” he said.
A more significant challenge, the mayor said, will be securing enough personnel to staff the sites. People are needed to fill a range of roles, from administering vaccines to directing vehicular and pedestrian traffic. He urged anyone interested in volunteering to contact City Hall.
“Anything – nurses, anybody and everybody,” he said of the skill sets and volunteers being sought.
He added: “It’s almost like running an election … We’re doing the best we can.”