Vaccine effort sees locals step up, volunteers plan for phase-out after months in action

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NORTH SMITHFIELD – Over the past two months, Diane Wojcik estimates she’s spent 30 hours a week volunteering with the town-focused COVID-19 vaccination effort.

She’s not alone, and the group’s work is still not quite finished.

Wojcik is just one of several dozen North Smithfield residents who answered the call, when it was clear that the town needed help with a task that was brand new at the start of 2021: creating a system to ensure fair distribution of a potentially life-saving vaccine.

It was tough going at first.

With just over a month in office, Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski was still acclimating to his new job as town leader when he learned that municipal staff would play a roll in distributing the doses. The North Smithfield Emergency Management Agency – which in previous years had only been tasked with minor responsibilities such as helping out with parking at the town’s annual Pumpkinfest – would play a key role.

But NSEMA offices were not even set up in the new headquarters in the basement of Town Hall on Greene Street.

Phone lines for NSEMA were installed in late January, just after officials learned that North Smithfield residents would be allocated 60 doses at a regional clinic in Smithfield. As municipal staff began assembling work stations and unpacking boxes that had sat collecting dust since relocation from the Town Annex last year, the phones began to ring.

By the time Wojcik and other volunteers were set up, there were hundreds of calls to return to residents anxious to secure an appointment.

“Once one person knew, they called their friends and it was non-stop,” Zwolenski said.

In the last week of January, municipal leaders across Rhode Island were told how many residents they’d be able to vaccinate, and North Smithfield was allocated 320 doses. The shots came with strict guidelines from the Rhode Island Department of Health, limiting the effort to residents age 75 and older.

With thousands of eligible seniors to vaccinate, it was clear the allocation would fall short. And the limited number of doses created another obstacle as anxieties ran high.

“People were so afraid that they weren’t going to get their shot,” said Wojcik.

As calls were returned, a volunteer staff began filling out registration forms by hand. Those forms then had to be organized by age with priority given to the town’s oldest residents, who were called back for an appointment.

Town Councilor Kimberly Alves soon became a fixture at Town Hall, taking charge of administrative tasks such as registering residents on the state portal alongside Zwolenski’s Administrative Assistant Donna Rovedo. Others, including Wojcik and Gail and Tito Ahmed, became regulars at the town’s new call center.

But volunteer labor at Town Hall was just the start of what was needed: At a shared clinic at Monsignor Gadoury School in Woonsocket, staff was required for a whole list of jobs. There were parking attendants, people to help elderly visitors in need of wheelchair assistance, and volunteers to check people in, perform symptom screenings, monitor for potential side effects and schedule second doses.

And, of course, there were the vaccinators, organized and scheduled through North Smithfield Fire & Rescue, while members of the North Smithfield Police Department focused on security.

Wojick was among the group that stayed behind at Town Hall, along with her husband John Wojcik, the deputy director of NSEMA. She said that speaking to, and reassuring her neighbors was a rewarding job, a sentiment echoed by other volunteers.

“I really enjoyed talking to people because it’s such an anxiety-ridden situation,” said Sandy Soares.

“It’s important to comfort people,” said Wojcik, adding that, “It was like Christmas morning all over again when they heard from us. I think this was one of the best volunteer jobs I ever had.”

“They were desperate,” Zwolenski said of residents calling during those first several weeks.

The NSEMA group began keeping a list of standbys hoping to secure an appointment, and in the first week of March, RIDOH extended the effort to those over the age of 65.

“We didn’t get enough vaccines by a long shot,” said Wojcik.

“We had used all of our allocation and we hadn’t even gotten to age 70 yet,” said Zwolenski.

Still, “Everyone on the list gets called,” Zwolenski said. “They called us, so we helped them.”

Fortunately, around the same time Rhode Island began utilizing pharmacies for vaccine distribution and additional state clinics opened up.

“Much of the pressure has been relieved,” said Zwolenski. “Now, we’ve got it down to a really fine science.”

As the hastily-staffed clinic shared with Woonsocket is phased-out, a new site at the former Sears store located in Walnut Hill Plaza at 1500 Diamond Hill Road has been scheduled for a “soft-opening” on Sunday, March 28. Appointments will be posted and available for scheduling according to current state age and underlying health condition protocols on the state’s website www.vaccinateri.org starting Friday, March 26 at 5 p.m.

“This state-run site will help ensure that our residents of North Smithfield as well as those residents in neighboring communities are able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in a timely manner,” noted the administrator in this week’s newsletter.

The phones are still ringing at NSEMA, but now the team spends most of the time directing callers to outside routes for a vaccine appointment, providing phone numbers and websites.

Last Friday, municipal volunteers extended their efforts to School Department staff, scheduling and administering doses to around 100 employees in the North Smithfield School District.

Three weeks remain before the town-run clinic draws to a close, and final vaccines go into the arms of those receiving a second dose. And everyone’s lost track of just how much work they’ve done.

“Our people are fatigued,” said Zwolenski. “At one point we had 820 names. I think now we’re around 900.”

Asked how many hours she’s spent volunteering, Wocjik said, “I think when I counted last it was 210 hours.”

For an over-extended administrator still relatively new to the to the job, there’s a silver lining.

“It’s very reassuring to know that we have talented people willing to dedicate an immense amount of time to help their town,” he said.

Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski stands with a group of dedicated volunteers who’ve been giving their time since late January. From left are Sandy Soares, Kaylee Cote, Zwolenski, Donna Rovedo, Elise Shatraw, Councilor Kimberly Alves, Diane Wojcik and Marie Anne Depault.   
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