As older Rhode Islanders receive COVID-19 vaccinations, new state-run mass vaccination sites are opening, but not in southern Rhode Island.
Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy, D-Hopkinton and Westerly, said he was growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of sites in South County. That situation, however, might soon change.
Kennedy confirmed that talks are currently underway to secure a large building in West Kingston, which is owned by Schneider Electric.
“I can confirm that there has been discussion within the state government and DOH [Rhode Island Department of Health] about trying to get a mass vaccination site for southern Rhode Island at the former American Power Conversion in Rhode Island parlance, now Schneider Electric, in West Kingston,” he said. “It is a large facility with handicap accessibility and plenty of parking. While looking at the location, there is also discussion about continuing some of the municipal vaccination sites and perhaps broadening the scope to allow cross-town use.”
Even after several exchanges with the Rhode Island Department of Health, Kennedy said he still did not understand how the state could open new sites in northern Rhode Island, when there are still no mass vaccination sites in the southern part of the state.
“Maybe it's just me, but I am very concerned that things are not happening fast enough,” he said. “I don't want to hear the Department of Health talking about regional or state-run sites in terms of ‘the coming weeks.’ I want to see something happen now."
Local emergency management directors said they would welcome a large South County vaccination facility.
Richmond EMA Director Joseph Arsenault said the older residents who comprise the two groups being vaccinated now are reluctant to drive long distances to get their COVID-19 vaccinations.
“A lot of our southern Rhode Island residents don’t want to drive up to Cranston or Providence,” he said. “They want to stay down, within the community. They’re not opposed to going to a bigger-scale vaccination site.”
In Charlestown, EMA Director Kevin Gallup said he would welcome a state-run mass vaccination site.
“It’s a good thing,” he said. “We would support that 100%. We should have one in South County … People from South County don’t go north of the tower and they don’t over the bridges.”
Hopkinton EMA Director Ron MacDonald III said the Schneider Electric building would be accessible to all South County residents. Hopkinton is one of several Rhode Island towns, including Charlestown and Richmond, currently participating in the regional “MEDS POD” vaccination site in South Kingstown for people over 75.
“I think it’s definitely appropriate to have one as close as can be,” he said. “That site is not far from where we’re doing it now on South Road, so that’s probably the best alternative.”
Kennedy, who has also proposed the former Benny’s on Post Road in Westerly as a possible site, said he was continuing to receive complaints from frustrated constituents.
“I hope that we can hear some positive news by next week regarding a southwest Rhode Island mass vaccination site,” he said. “I can tell you that my email inbox and phone answering machine were filled with dejected residents who once again feel that state government and the Department of Health have forgotten about this corner of the state.”
Kennedy said he hoped incoming Gov. Dan McKee would expand vaccination capacity in southern Rhode Island.
“I would hope that with Governor McKee preparing to take over in the executive branch, that perhaps he can help fix some of these cavernous holes in the Dept. of Health program,” he said. “Gov. McKee has been in touch with Connecticut Gov. Lamont, where the state of Connecticut received an ‘A’ for their vaccination program and speedily addressing the most vulnerable age groups. Rhode Island has taken a different approach that has left many people struggling to get the vaccine in a timely manner.”
Rhode Island Department of Health spokesman Joseph Wendelken would not confirm that the West Kingston site is under consideration.
“The two next sites will be opening in Woonsocket and Middletown,” he said. “We are exploring other locations, specifically in the areas of the state where we don’t have state-run sites. But we don’t have anything to announce at this point.”