NORTH SMITHFIELD – It’s been a whirlwind week for North Smithfield Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski.
Zwolenski, who has only been in the role since December, learned last Wednesday that COVID-19 vaccinations would be made available for North Smithfield residents age 75 and older.
The newly elected town leader had just a few days to identify 60 qualified people who could provide their information and had transportation to the vaccination site in Smithfield for the first event on Saturday, Jan. 30.
And as word got out that vaccinations were becoming available, Town Hall phones began ringing.
One week later, those phones still haven’t stopped.
Most town staff moved into the building last May. But it seems many of the rooms at 83 Greene St., a renovated former school, were not set up as Zwolenski took the reigns, including, most notably, the space for Col. Peter Branconnier, director of the town’s Emergency Management Agency.
NRI NOW broke the story in January that eight months in, Branconnier had no furniture or phone lines, and his equipment remained in boxes at the former Town Annex, somehow left behind in the process. The town is in the midst of possible litigation with contractor Calson Corp. over renovation work at the building, formerly Kendall Dean School, which now houses municipal staff.
Councilor Paul Vadenais, who was head of the Municipal Buildings Review Task Force that has overseen the project until recently, when he was replaced by Paul Nordstrom, has not responded to questions regarding how and why NSEMA offices were overlooked.
This week, between Zoom meetings with the governor, the Department of Health and emergency staff from across the state, it seems the new administrator himself has spent time setting up offices and unpacking boxes. Zwolenski and his Administrative Assistant Donna Rovedo have spent late nights calling residents, and setting up NSEMA voice messaging, furniture and filing cabinets, with help from the Public Works Department, all while working to get a volunteer EMA staff in place.
“It was a race against time. While everyone was getting snowed in, this was getting set up,” Zwolenski said, showing off the newly completed NSEMA digs, with nine phone lines spread across three rooms in the basement of the former school. “This didn’t get operational until late Monday afternoon.”
Now, thanks to a group of volunteers who have been coming in regularly, North Smithfield Town Hall staff is finally catching up.
“We had more than 200 people we had to call,” Zwolenski told NRI NOW on Wednesday, Feb. 3.
Now, that volunteer staff is working through a list of residents hoping to be placed on a list for the next round of vaccines. All qualifying residents within the age bracket – as dictated by RIDOH – must be called to fill out questionnaires.
Calls during Town Hall business hours are now generally returned within a half hour – although when the group started, the dedicated COVID message line’s memory was completely full.
Residents 75 and over who still need to be added to the waiting list are asked to call (401) 767-2200 and dial extension 510 for NSEMA.
“The people are ecstatic,” said volunteer Diane Wojcik of the residents she’s spoken to.
“They’re happy they’re talking to a person,” added Wojcik’s husband, John Wojcik, deputy director of NSEMA.
Zwolenski noted that some of the residents hoping to get the vaccine are not mobile and are in assisted living.
“We have to work our way through that,” he said.
The town will pair up with the neighboring city of Woonsocket for the next round of vaccinations, scheduled to begin the week of February 14 at Monsignor Gadoury School by Park Square in Woonsocket. North Smithfield’s volunteer vaccinators – a group of current and former healthcare professionals qualified to administer the shot – will work beside those from the neighboring city, with 80 vaccines each week earmarked for town residents for four consecutive weeks.
Fire department personnel from both towns will be directing the process, as well as giving vaccines. North Smithfield Fire Chief David Chartier has worked with Woonsocket Chief Paul Shatraw to organize the venue.
“We’re going to need more volunteers because this is going to be a protracted process,” Zwolenski said, noting that once the several hundred North Smithfield residents in the current age bracket are vaccinated, the next age group down will be scheduled.
In the new call center, they say mornings are the busiest.
“Everyone is so scared,” said Rovedo. “They’re scared that they’re not going to get their appointment. When they call, I just let them talk.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Zwolenski became emotional as the Wojciks handed him a large stack of papers – new questionnaires completed in just the last hour and a half.
“I’m at a loss for words,” he said.
Councilor Kim Alves, who began volunteering last week, is now a regular sight at Town Hall, occupying a room by the administrator’s office.
“Everyone is working together now,” Zwolenski said.
The building itself is striking, thanks to a renovation that restored some historic, original features, with clean, open space and wood flooring throughout.
But few town residents have seen the space in the nine months it’s been occupied, as staff looks to stave off the pandemic.
“They love it here,” Zwolenski said of the town employees.
It seems there is still work to be done on Greene Street, and staff continues to set up furnishings and assemble racks for the town’s historical documents in two remodeled storage rooms. TVs are still being wired, and just this week, Zwolenski unpacked photos of former leaders who once held his seat, which had been left sitting in a box.
Still, on Wednesday, the vibe was hopeful.
“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Zwolenski said. “It gets a little brighter every day.”
Those able to volunteer to help answer phones for a few hours during the day are asked to call NSEMA during regular business hours at (401) 767-2200 ext. 510. Medical professionals qualified to administer the vaccine are also asked to call.
Editor’s note: The above article has been edited to reflect the latest information from the town of North Smithfield.