PROVIDENCE — The shuttered Sears store on Diamond Hill Road in Woonsocket will soon see new life as one of the next state-run mass vaccination sites.
State Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott made the surprise announcement Thursday during a weekly briefing on the state’s coronavirus response, which focused largely on the Rhode Island Department of Health’s goals for ramping up vaccinations according to a strategy that increasingly prioritizes age to determine who’s next in line for the shot.
Alexander-Scott gave no specific timeline, but said the old Sears and another site in Middletown would be converted into mass vaccination sites in the coming weeks. They will join The Dunk in Providence and a former Citizens Bank corporate building at Sockanosset Crossing in Cranston, which have been vaccinating people for over a week now.
“To our older adults who are hearing about these two mass vaccination sites but have not yet been vaccinated, I want to assure you that we are very well organized in these locations and it is very accessible for you as well to get vaccinated there,” the health director said. “We’re going to be replicating the model that we have at these two sites at other places in Rhode Island.”
The Middletown location used to be a Benny’s store, prompting Alexander-Scott to quip that the new vaccination sites will be “true Rhode Island-style locations.”
Reached for comment after the press briefing, Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt said the city arranged a tour of several properties in Walnut Hill Plaza for state officials after they inquired about the possibility of opening a Woonsocket-based vaccination site. Located on a bus line with ample parking, the roughly 50,000-square-foot Sears building, “which is in pretty decent condition, actually,” turned out to be an ideal location for reaching residents in the orbit of Northern Rhode Island, the mayor said.
“We’re pleased,” said the mayor. “It’s going to be in the city and it’s going to be more convenient for people who live in the city.”
Woonsocket Fire Chief Paul Shatraw, who runs the city’s COVID-19 response, said the size of the building and its easily accessible location make it “perfect” for use as a mass vaccination site. Sears, a longtime anchor of the plaza, has been closed since March 2017.
“The whole goal of this thing is to get shots in arms,” he said. “It was a natural fit.”
As a state site, it will be up to RIDOH to assign staff to run the facility, Shatraw said. Like The Dunk in Providence, the Sears site may end up largely in the hands of the Rhode Island National Guard.
Speaking during the briefing, Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee said one of his immediate priorities is to continue building capacity to get the vaccine out to more people as quickly as possible as supplies become available.
In addition to state-run sites, McKee said there will be five “municipal regional sites” that will be run not by the state, but rather by its cities and towns.
McKee learned this week that the state will receive a grant of $64 million to support vaccine distribution from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, funds he said will help him achieve his goals when he becomes governor – which could be as early as next week. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) says he hopes to schedule a confirmation hearing by then for Gov. Gina Raimondo, President Biden’s choice for U.S. secretary of commerce.
“One of the best ways we can speed up the distribution is to create capacity and that’s what we’ve been working on for the last few weeks and will continue over the next weeks...so we can deliver more vaccine as supplies come in,” McKee said. “That’s why increasing the sites – both state sites and municipal regional sites – builds out the capacity in advance of the supply so we can quickly get shots into the arms of the people of the state of Rhode Island.”
McKee said that when he becomes governor, “there will be a plan to get teachers and related personnel vaccinated.”
“We need to get schools open,” he said.
RIDOH has been under fire for getting the vaccine out to the general population too slowly, but Alexander-Scott said the state has made great strides of late.
During the last seven days, she said, vaccine administration was up 130 percent over the previous weekly average, with personnel at Sockanosset Crossing and The Dunk pushing out more than 6,600 doses per day. More than 40,000 appointments for additional doses have been booked at the two sites through March 10 and more than 225,000 Rhode Islanders have now received at least one dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, both of which are two-dose regimens.
Johnson & Johnson is poised to obtain emergency authorization for a third vaccine from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration within days, a move expected to provide Rhode Island with a preliminary infusion of some 9,000 more doses. Presently, the federal government is supplying the state with about 20,000 doses of vaccine per week, but McKee and other officials are optimistic that production of Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine will continue to ease constrictions in supply.
“Our work isn’t done,” Alexander-Scott said. “We have hundreds of thousands of more doses to administer and we are going to do it quickly.”
Until recently, the states’ strategy has focused mostly on vaccinating select at-risk groups first, including nursing home residents, hospital workers and first responders. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that the state switched its emphasis to age, starting with the oldest first. People over 75 were first in line, but the process opened to those over 65 on Monday.
There was no word from Alexander-Scott on when the trickle-down will reach even younger people, but she said the state’s strategy paid off in the plummeting rate of hospitalization from COVID-19 complications. Yesterday, there were 163 people in the hospital, a 65 percent decline since January, substantially exceeding that of neighboring states and the national average.
The briefing came just days shy of the one-year anniversary – March 1, 2020 – of confirmation of the state’s first coronavirus infection. Since then, nearly 2,500 people have died and more than 125,000 people have tested positive, many of whom have become very ill, as a result of catching COVID-19.
But Alexander-Scott said things continue to look up. The positivity rate continues its weeks-long nosedive, dropping to a weekly average of 2.1 percent. And on the last 24-hour batch of tests, it dropped to 1.9 percent – below the 2 percent threshold for the first time in months.
“Between then and now we have had quite the journey,” the health director said. “This has been a year of loss and a year of testing our strength for us all. We’ve lost loved ones, we’ve lost time with family and friends. This year has caused economic hardship and emotional hardship. This was the most difficult year for many of us.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo