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How Rhode Island Is Handling Vaccine Rollout

NOEL KING, HOST:

Rhode Island has set aside vaccines for places hit hardest by COVID-19, like the city of Central Falls. It has the highest infection rate in the state, but more than 30% of adults there have had at least one dose of the vaccine. Here's Lynn Arditi from The Public's Radio in Rhode Island.

LYNN ARDITI, BYLINE: It's raining when people start lining up outside the clinic to get vaccinated - shopkeepers, mechanics, house cleaners, retired factory workers. Inside the clinic at the Knights of Columbus Hall, a crew of volunteers is arranging metal folding chairs and wiping them down with disinfectant. A man in a maroon beanie and surgical mask darts across the linoleum tile floor, checking with volunteers getting ready to open the clinic like a coach at game time.

EUGENIO FERNANDEZ: OK. I think we're ready to go.

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER #1: Awesome.

FERNANDEZ: Ready?

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER #2: Ready.

FERNANDEZ: Who's first? (Speaking Spanish).

ARDITI: That's Eugenio Fernandez. He runs a small pharmacy here, and he's supplying the vaccines he got from the state. He signals to the people in the front to approach the registration table.

FERNANDEZ: OK. Come up.

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER #3: Hi. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'm good. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER #3: Can I just see your ID, please?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You can.

ARDITI: If they don't have an ID, other proofs of address, like a utility bill, are accepted. Anyone 18 and older is eligible. In this 1 square mile city of nearly 20,000 people, multigenerational families live under one roof. Two-thirds are Latino. About 13% are Black. They've been vaccinated in low-income high-rises, a community health center and a local pediatrician's office and here, in this converted social hall.

Gloria Arango is a 43-year-old single mother who cleans houses for a living. And she worries about protecting her clients.

GLORIA ARANGO: I work for people really in danger for the age or diseases, so I have to be really careful and conscious.

ARDITI: The goal for the day is to vaccinate 450 residents. There is no statewide registry, so the city set up its own. The city operates two dedicated phone lines in Spanish and English that residents can call to sign up. Maria Rivera is leading the effort. She's Central Falls' first Latina mayor.

MARIA RIVERA: There's a lot of work that goes into this, right? It's not just vaccinating somebody.

ARDITI: She says people who sign up by phone have to be called back to make sure they qualify.

RIVERA: Because we only have two phone numbers that we're using for residents to call in, we have a lot of voicemails.

ARDITI: And mistakes happen. A silver-haired woman is trying to confirm her vaccination appointment. Dora Figueiredo and her husband immigrated from Portugal 46 years ago. The volunteer at the registration desk discovers that her husband's information wasn't entered properly.

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER #4: OK. Who signed her up - because I can't find him?

ARDITI: Their last name was misspelled. Their house number was wrong, and the husband's gender was wrong. The errors had to be corrected while other people waited their turn.

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER #4: Sorry about this.

DORA FIGUEIREDO: That's OK, not a problem.

MICHAEL GIBSON: The limiting step isn't the people injecting the vaccine. The limiting step is a lot of the logistics.

ARDITI: That's Dr. Michael Gibson. He's a professor and cardiologist at Harvard Medical School. He drove down from Boston to help vaccinate Central Falls residents. He says community clinics like this one are critical for residents who don't have cars or reliable Internet access or may be hesitant to get vaccinated.

M GIBSON: This really showed me that a grassroots approach to this is probably going to be very effective.

ARDITI: And something's clearly working. Central Falls had one of the highest infection rates in the country. But since the vaccination drive started, the weekly number of new COVID cases in Central Falls fell nearly 80%. That's compared with a 65% drop across Rhode Island.

For NPR News, I'm Lynn Arditi in Providence.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.