WOONSOCKET – In the spots where people once shopped for tools and toys, the old Sears & Roebuck store on Diamond Hill Road has been transformed into a high-capacity people-mover for those en route to a date with a syringe packing the COVID-19 vaccine.
But for Brooke A. Lawrence, it's much more than that.
The executive officer of the Rhode Island Medical Reserve Corps says the site is a bridge to the other side of the pandemic – and he's helping build it.
“Our state motto is hope. This represents hope,” said Lawrence as he led reporters and city officials on a tour of the state's fifth mass vaccination site. “This is what's
getting this over with and getting to the conclusion.”
A national organization of volunteer clinical professionals that came of age after 9/11, the Rhode Island chapter of the Medical Reserve Corps is the chief staffing agency for the Sears site. It's also corralling non-clinical volunteers from colleges and community organizations to perform vaccine check-ins and other logistical duties at Walnut Hill Plaza's former anchor store.
If it is a bridge, though, Lawrence and his team of helping hands are still waiting for the traffic. Accompanied by Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, Councilman David Soucy and Deputy Fire Chief Roger Perreault, Lawrence led the tour last Friday, which was only the second day the site had been opened to fill vaccination appointments since it was launched by the Rhode Island Department of Health the previous Sunday.
In all, fewer than 1,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer vaccines had been administered at the site as of this writing, including 500 of the former on Friday.
It's clear, Baldelli-Hunt said, that demand for appointments is still far outpacing the available supply of vaccines. On the site's first day of operations, all of the available appointments were spoken for in about 90 minutes, she said.
“It's like Garth Brooks tickets,” quipped Lawrence.
But Lawrence has little doubt the vaccine bottleneck – a national issue – will soon vanish, and when it does, Sears will be ready to operate as a seven-day-a-week clinic with a capacity to vaccinate 2,000 to 2,500 people per day.
“We've built a whole lot of horsepower here,” he said. “I could easily put 15,000 doses a week through here. It's just a matter of getting the doses.”
Except for open floor space where traffic is marked off by black aisle ribbons, like a movie theater, and a few vaccination stations staffed by the RIMRC's clinical professionals, the former Sears – with a footprint of more than 60,000 square feet – was looking especially cavernous and empty. Because it's so huge, says Lawrence, operating at partial capacity comes with its own set of challenges.
There were perhaps a dozen volunteers, including a handful of clinical personnel at the vaccination stations, waiting for patients to arrive immediately after the tour. But Lawrence said it will take about three times as many to operate the site at full capacity.
What the volunteer force presently lacks in scale, however, it makes up for in passion.
That was apparent from a brief conversation with Christina Larisa, a nurse from private industry who choked back tears that welled up in her eyes as soon as she was asked why she's volunteering with the RIMRS. In her professional role, said Larisa, she isn't a part of the frontline hospital war on COVID-19, but she knows many nurses who are, and for them, the pandemic has been a harrowing burden that she feels compelled to share.
“I know how hard it must have been in the hospitals...” she says. “The stories have been terrible. It's great to volunteer.”
When visitors come to Sears to get the shot, they'll be steered toward an intake station to receive a slip of paper similar to a cash-register receipt. The information on it is vital for RIMSC personnel to keep track of their vaccine inventory, to make sure all shots are accounted for – a major chore for an organization obsessed with “zero waste” in the vaccine supply chain, according to Lawrence.
As he reached a vaccination station where shots actually go into arms, Lawrence said, “This is the easy part.”
The reopening of the Sears store for vaccinations represents the first time the building has been used – for anything – in more than four years. In March 2017, the long-running corporate downsizing of one of America's legacy retail chains finally caught up with the East Woonsocket location, which was then shuttered for good.
Despite a 2018 takeover of Walnut Hill Plaza by Lionheart Capital of Florida, the new owners have – so far – been unable to locate a permanent tenant for the site, which represents about 30 percent of all the pad space in one of the city's two major shopping plazas.
But Baldelli-Hunt says the state's use of the property as a vaccination site is a laudable one, particularly since it puts local residents, among the hardest hit in the state by the pandemic, in close proximity to an easily accessible hub for immunizations.
“I feel we're very fortunate in the city that the state recognizes the importance of having a state-run facility in Northern Rhode Island,” the mayor said. “This enables us to reach residents of Woonsocket and the high-density neighborhoods.”
While the arrival of a new link in the state's mass vaccination chain has hogged most of the limelight of late, Lawrence and Baldelli-Hunt were eager to call attention to a companion testing facility that opened recently – in the former Olympia Sports building, next door to Sears.
With COVID-19 positivity rates showing an uptick – and Easter threatening another holiday spike in the near future – Lawrence spent part of his time during the tour stumping for continued vigilance through testing.
Indeed, the most current RIDOH data shows that more people have become infected with COVID-19 in the city since the onset of the pandemic – over 4,900 people – than only five other communities, including Providence, Pawtucket, East Providence, Warwick and Cranston. As a fraction of the total population, that's almost 12 percent.
“We're seeing a trend upward in Northern Rhode Island and we're very concerned about that,” Lawrence said during a drop-in at the Olympia Sports site.
Statewide, infection rates have notched up to about 2.4 percent after having plateaued at 2 percent for the previous several weeks. Health officials fear the pattern may be the harbinger of yet another “wave” of infection, brought on by the emergence of more contagious variants of COVID-19 and increased social mobility resulting from a combination of pandemic fatigue and – ironically – the arrival of vaccines.
“People are letting their guard down,” observed Baldelli-Hunt.
Like other post-holiday surges, Lawrence said he wouldn't be surprised to see a bump in Rhode Island's numbers two to three weeks from now after the gatherings of Easter.
“It's really important that we don't take our foot off the accelerator on testing,” he said. “The numbers are really starting to creep.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo