WESTERLY — Senior citizens who had registered to receive the first round of a COVID-19 vaccine wasted no time Monday as they arrived to the Westerly Senior Citizens Center, some about 90 minutes early, for appointments that were carefully sequenced.
Officials who ran the first day of the clinic said the early rush was a bit unexpected but the Westerly Police Department had a total of nine officers and other personnel on hand to assist both at the State Street entrance, the parking lot, and inside the senior center.
"It's very rewarding. They are thrilled – you can see the relief on people's faces," said Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey. "Some people have not left homes since March."
The clinic, which is using the vaccine manufactured by the Moderna pharmaceutical company, is for those who are 75 or older, but officials said they anticipated the pool of candidates could soon be moved to 65 and older. Residents who received their first dose of the vaccine were elated.
"It's very exciting and it was unexpected and I hope everyone who is younger than us gets a chance to get one soon," said Catherine Haire as she walked to her vehicle after receiving a shot.
The clinic is a joint effort of the town and its emergency management department, which includes the police department, and Westerly Hospital, with support from a regional Regional Medication Emergency Distribution System Point of Dispensing, or MEDSPOD, a team comprising local emergency management agencies, emergency medical services, police departments and volunteers from eight towns in the region.
"Lots of hugs and lots of happiness. This is the place to be for the vaccine today," said Kerin Da Cruz, chief nursing officer and vice president of patient care services at Westerly Hospital.
The hospital provided clinical staff, nurses and pharmacists to administer shots and provide other care, and medical professionals from local doctors' offices and medical practices also pitched in. A large group of volunteers also helped.
The first round of shots will be administered on successive Mondays and the second round over the course of the following four Mondays. On Monday, the plan was to administer 520 shots.
"We're extremely excited to be able to provide vaccine to our most vulnerable population. It does provide hope that we're finally getting through the pandemic," said Amy Grzybowski, the town's emergency management director.
Some residents who received a shot said they were pleased Rhode Island is catching up, as neighboring states such as Connecticut appear to have been more efficient in rolling out the vaccination process.
"It's about time we got it after all the delays. Rhode Island is at the bottom of the list," said Raymond Guntulis, who, along with his wife, Joan, received a shot on Monday.
Guntulis' statement was borne out by the federal Centers for Disease Control's COVID-19 vaccine distribution and administration data tracker. As of Sunday, Rhode Island was ranked 50th of all the states in the country for percentage of COVID-19 vaccines administered compared to what was distributed to them.
The town had about two weeks to organize the clinic. Planning ranged from setting up appointments to lining up medical professionals and finding a suitable location. During a planning session last week, Lacey said, officials realized the senior center's internet capacity would have to be increased to ensure the clinic operated efficiently. The center called its internet provider and increased transmission speeds, a transaction the town will pay for, Lacey said.
Officials originally expected to receive a total of 640 doses for all four weeks of the clinic but now expect to receive more.
Those who received shots on Monday registered through the municipal CodeRed emergency notification system. More than 40 volunteers and members of the police department's community policing division worked the phones to assist seniors in making appointments over the course of the last two weeks.
"This has been a huge volunteer effort. We thank those who are willing to give of their time," Grzybowski said.