Bristol's first-responders aced their COVID response test

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 5/6/21

Now that vaccination appointments are easy to obtain and the vaccine is moving through state clinics and local pharmacies, it’s hard to believe that just a few weeks ago they were being …

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Bristol's first-responders aced their COVID response test

Posted

Now that vaccination appointments are easy to obtain and the vaccine is moving through state clinics and local pharmacies, it’s hard to believe that just a few weeks ago they were being allocated to towns in meager numbers — two or three hundred at a time — and it was left up to local officials in each town to determine how best to get those shots into arms.

While it was going on, it became clear that some towns were doing a better job that others. With Fire Chief Michael DeMello and Police Lt. Steven St.Pierre taking the lead, it became evident that Bristol was running one of the most robust and efficient operations of any community in Rhode Island — a state that is, at present, sixth in the nation for per-capita vaccination rates. Now that the local operation has gone relatively quiet, Chief DeMello and Lt. St. Pierre reflected back on what it took to react to the early days of the vaccine rollout.

“We’ve had plans in place for 20 to 25 years,” said Chief DeMello about pandemic preparedness. The last time they had to execute those plans was about 12 years ago, with the surge of the H1N1 influenza variant. While plans are reviewed periodically to make sure they are current, there’s nothing like on-the-ground experience to help fine-tune the operation.

“Updates happened continually, and the state helped us adjust; lessons were learned,” said Chief DeMello. One unforeseen circumstance with COVID was the refrigeration and storage issue — no other public vaccine plan has required vaccine storage at such extreme temperatures. The need for booster shots with two of the three FDA-approved vaccines also complicated the process.

“Our volunteers, town employees, and staff really stepped up,” said Chief DeMello. “We had volunteers who were recently retired nurses with active licenses to help with shots. Manpower was never an issue.”

They had extra hands on deck when the oldest residents were getting their vaccines, to help move people through the venue. They scheduled 10 to 15-minute time slots for that cohort, to allow for the fact that some people would need extra assistance, but even then they found they were soon down to 8 minutes from check-in to the beginning of the post-vaccine observation phase.

They’re still at it, despite the fact that state clinics and pharmacies have taken over the lion’s share of the distribution effort. There’s a clinic this coming Friday at Mt. Hope High School for students ages 16 and older (currently eligible to receive the Pfizer vaccine.) So far there are about 50 students signed up.

“There are always adjustments as a situation changes, and we got it streamlined more and more as the days went on. We got it down to a science. I can’t give enough credit to everyone who made it happen,” Chief DeMello said.

Credit to the chief

“Mike’s going to give all the credit to the volunteers, and we did have great volunteers, from Roger Williams students to Rec Center employees,” said Lt. Steven St. Pierre with the Bristol Police Department, who was tasked with planning security and logistics for the clinics. “But it was really Mike and his drive to keep the community safe. He was the force behind all of it, and he put his heart and soul into it.”

Lt. St. Pierre said the team began meeting in December regarding how they would plan it out, whether they would hold it at Quinta Gamelin, or do a drive-through clinic. The key was coming up with a lot of options, and keeping them open. “It was about contingency planning, making plans for any eventuality,” he said. “Now we have everything in place and can just dust it off and it will be even smoother. We could have actually done a lot more, but at the time there just was not enough supply.”

Ironically, despite the smooth operation that they put in place, getting the responsibility out of the wheelhouse of emergency services was the ultimate goal. “We have other missions,” said Lt. St. Pierre. “Our mission for the vaccine rollout was to get it done quickly, safely and efficiently, but doctors and pharmacies should be the primary delivery moving forward.”

Eventually they got to a point where they had more capacity than demand.

“People locally were very interested in getting the vaccine. We knew when we were struggling for patients — when we were calling and people had already gotten it from the state or a pharmacy — that we could step back,” he said. “Fighting over patients was a great problem to have.”

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