Above: “Today is my second shot. I’m very delighted because being alone is difficult and you’re older and you can’t go out that much,” says Veronica Casinelli at the March 10 clinic.
‘The Little Vaccine Clinic That Could’ held 26 clinics over 3 and a half months.
It wasn’t Cheers exactly, but when you walked into the COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Swift Community Center, usually someone knew your name, even at those early clinics, which served residents from several nearby communities in addition to East Greenwich.
And that friendly, capable atmosphere only became more pronounced as more clinics at Swift were held and clinic workers and volunteers alike hit their stride. All of that came to a close last Wednesday, when East Greenwich held its last community clinic, putting mostly second shots in the arms of about 300 people.
“Watching our community come together during this pandemic was, I think, one of our town’s finest moments,” said Herbert “Hub” Brennan, the doctor who served as the clinic’s medical director from the beginning. “The decision to step up and establish a regional clinic took courage. It was a burden to the town and its employees, yet it was absolutely the right thing to do. The effort saved human lives by vaccinating nearly 8,500 people in 26 clinics over four months. Dozens of local volunteers turned up and their enthusiasm was palpable.”
It all started last fall when, as Town Manager Andy Nota put it, “We started by just saying ‘yes’ … to a very simple and somewhat innocent question offered by the R.I. Department of Health, Would EG like to serve as a host to a regional municipal vaccination site?”
He added, “We ended up embarking on a journey of sorts with our partners from RIDOH and other involved state agencies and the governor’s office in the development of a functional and efficient effort for what was to be a very complicated task.”
The fact was, early on, officials didn’t really know what that would look like. Initially, it was thought the clinic (or POD, place of distribution) could run as a drive-through at EGFD Station 2 on Frenchtown Road. But there just wasn’t enough room, to say nothing of the fact that it was December when these clinics started. So, the clinic took over Swift, which had been underused since March 2020, when the pandemic arrived in Rhode Island and nearly all normal activities ceased.
Town Manager Andy Nota knew Swift wasn’t big enough to vaccinate thousands daily – something now happening at the state vaccination sites – but he felt strongly East Greenwich could help early on, as vaccine supply ramped up.
“I think we felt good that we had the systems in place to support our region in this initial round,” Nota said in December.
The first clinics were reserved for first responders and health care workers from EG, Warwick, Cranston, West Warwick, Coventry and West Greenwich and they started right after Christmas, a true sign of hope after so many months of hardship.
There were some glitches along the way. Early on statewide, some people shared the link to make an appointment and Nota said there were at least a few doses of vaccine given to people at Swift who were not on that first-round list.
The other clinic challenges were of a more organizational bent: figuring out traffic flow – both inside and outside the building, figuring out clinic dates and times, getting appointments scheduled and lining up clinic volunteers. Those things fell to the town’s emergency management agency personnel – Nota as EMA director, but more specifically, to DPW Special Projects Manager Fred Gomes, as EMA deputy director, and Highway Superintendent Jim Fogel as EMA assistant. Of course, dealing with a pandemic was not the sort of emergency activity Nota, Gomes and Fogel have long trained for (think blizzard or hurricane for that), yet it’s been perhaps the most critical of their careers.
“This right now is my primary focus,” Gomes said in March. “This is a full-time job right now. Figuring out the dates, times, volunteers, appointments. It’s a different skill set – we’ve been practicing for years with all the exercises and stuff but until you actually do it, it’s totally different.”
He noted the EG clinic’s secret weapons.
“We’re lucky with the volunteers we have – Dr. Brennan, Dr. Tara Higgins – they’re here every single clinic. They make my job easier.”
The fact is, Brennan and Higgins did not need to sign up for this. The town could have been faced with finding different doctors and pharmacists to handle each clinic, but they volunteered early on. Brennan is in private practice in East Greenwich and Higgins is a pharmacist. Another regular clinic volunteer was Paul Larrat, dean of the URI Pharmacy School. Larrat lives in North Kingstown now but used to live in East Greenwich and he joined the clinic team.
Fire Chief Bernie Patenaude served as POD commander. “I thought it was great. It was great that a smaller town took it on when others were hesitant at the beginning,” said Patenaude. “Andy had the vision that this would work.”
And it got easier as the clinics proceeded, he said. “Once the state let us run with it, they let us do the work, it worked much smoother.”
He called out town parks and rec and senior services staff for doing “a yeoman’s job” in making sure older residents were able to sign up by phone.
Patenaude was in charge of making sure the clinic always had enough vaccine. If there were any left over doses, he was in charge of finding arms for those. That was one aspect of the clinic that was never quite streamlined. The state Department of Health counted vaccine reservations 24 hours before each clinic and dispensed doses accordingly. On the day of the clinic, Patenaude would keep track of the number of doses. Sometimes there were no-shows, or someone would come on the wrong day, or someone would show up for their second dose not realizing they needed to make an appointment.
Twice Patenaude ended up having to drive to East Providence (where the state’s vaccine stockpile is kept) to pick up some additional vaccine doses. More often, however, at the end of a clinic, there might have been an open vial or two, with some extra doses that would either go into someone’s arm or have to be discarded
So, clinic officials got creative. First, they hit up any volunteers at the clinic who had not yet been vaccinated. Then they would contact people on the sign up list or see if someone scheduled for a later clinic could come in early. But by the time they knew there were extras, it was after the regular clinic had ended so time was of the essence. If you got a call and you could get there quickly, it would work. Which is how some people, including this journalist, ended up supplying names of people nearby who could get to Swift quickly. Maybe not the most equitable system but one for which Town Manager Andy Nota made no apologies.
“The staff reached out to many, most of whom had already secured the vaccine or were unreachable,” said Nota.
“We were making ten phone calls to fill one spot,” said Patenaude. For Medical Director Brennan, it was all about not wasting “a single dose.”
Brennan would deliver the welcome before each clinic – a pep talk of sorts – where he routinely told volunteers what he said March 10: “It is not a stretch by any means to suggest that what you’re doing here today is going to save lives. It is. If not the patient you are immunizing, then someone close to them.”
“In reflection, I personally could not be more pleased and proud to have been part of this successful effort and work alongside many very committed public servants who managed and worked at the clinic,” said Nota. “From time to time you will find me saying, that ‘this is what we do as public servants,’ as there is no other safety net to responsively support our residents at a time of need, and at this moment I can’t find a better example to point to, than the efforts put forth by everyone that supported our local vaccination clinic.”
Among those who helped this little vaccine clinic that could were resident volunteers, many of whom signed up for multiple clinics, including Sandra Saunders and her husband Fred Griffith. “We came the first time and decided we’ll come back as much as we can,” said Saunders, who is retired and was a regular at the exercise classes at Swift that are only now resuming. “We miss our gym class here but if this helps out, then it’s worth it.”
“I volunteered at maybe eight clinics, and found each rewarding and moving,” recounted Rebecca Bliss. “And I can’t tell you how often we heard expressions of gratitude and appreciation from the elderly, teachers, etc., as they came through.”
All five members of the EG Town Council also pulled shifts.
“Generally speaking, it was one of the more rewarding things I’ve done,” said Councilor Caryn Corenthal, who worked at several of the clinics.
Council President Mark Schwager, a doctor himself, said he was impressed with how the town responded, noting the “versatility” of town staff. Referring to the EMA staff in particular – Nota, Gomes and Fogel – he said, “They still have their other responsibilities. To pull together this major operation was really impressive.”
“All the town employees were so great – and the volunteers,” said Councilor Renu Englehart. “They did such an amazing job.”
“I was in awe really at how efficiently it was run from taking names, temperatures, administering the vaccine and management of the waiting/observation area where we made sure any adverse reactions were addressed,” said Councilor Mike Donegan. “In fact, had we been given more vaccine doses, we could have run at a much greater capacity. The community of town employees and volunteers did an impressive job.”
As of this week, Swift Community Center is back to being Swift Community Center. Starting Monday, some programs resumed for the first time since then-Gov. Gina Raimondo’s November “pause.” Senior Services coordinator Charlotte Markey said it had been remarkable to see her regular workplace transformed into a COVID-19 vaccine distribution site.
Markey ended up working with Fred Gomes on organizing the clinics. And spending a LOT of time on the phone. First there were the incoming calls.
“Our seniors were so confused early on by the fact they couldn’t come in, by the fact other people – first responders – were getting shots and they weren’t,” Markey recalled. “I spent a lot of time on the phone trying to explain to people what we were doing here.”
Then, once the town registry got up and running, there were calls to schedule appointments. People were usually thrilled to get those calls. Markey said there were other calls too, from people who were not yet eligible but would relate sad health stories, hoping Markey could get them in sooner.
“But it wasn’t up to me and they didn’t understand that,” she said.
Working the clinics was emotionally draining but also deeply satisfying, Markey said.
“I always wished I could be a doctor or nurse, that first responder. And I never will – that’s not my path,” she said. “So to get that type of feeling … I felt like I was really helping, this is really historical and I’m a part of it. I felt privileged. I’m able to help even though I’m not a doctor. That was really good.”
Read more about the town’s vaccine clinic here: