PROVIDENCE – The box office where people once picked up tickets to see the icons of sport and stage now functions as a row of registration booths for COVID-19 vaccine recipients.
The lines are long, but they move fast, and after checking in arrivals are ushered along to one of 14 vaccination stations, each cordoned off by large, black privacy curtains.
This is the current life of the Dunkin' Donuts Center – better known as The Dunk – thus transformed into the state's largest mass vaccination site, with the capacity of putting more than 10,000 shots a day into the arms of Rhode Islanders if that much vaccine were available. It is not – at least not yet, anyway.
“Obviously we need to get more done, and faster,” House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi said after touring the facility with members of the media Tuesday. “We're not satisfied. But I will tell you there is a strong effort here and I clearly think we're moving in the right direction.”
Shekarchi was accompanied by Providence Rep. Raymond Hull, chairman of the House oversight committee on vaccine distribution, a process getting mixed reviews these days, at best. The Centers for Disease Control until recently ranked the rollout to the general population as the slowest in the country, though the standings improved markedly after the Rhode Island Department of Health began booking appointments at The Dunk for the first time last Thursday.
Speaking to reporters after the tour, Shekarchi and Hull both said the operations at The Dunk exceeded their expectations. Hull was particularly impressed by how smoothly people passed through the system, describing “the nice transition, nice movement.” The staff – including members of the Rhode Island National Guard – seemed well-briefed and knowledgeable.
“Some of the questions that I asked, I got answers to,” Hull said.
Dunkin' Donuts Center General Manager Larry Lepore and RI Guard Major Matthew Lavoie led the tour, which started in the bowels of the facility – puck-drop level for the Providence Bruins in normal times. There's no ice on the rink now – just a cavernous expanse of concrete ringed by empty stadium seats.
Guiding visitors past a corridor crammed with scores of brown cardboard boxes stacked on pallets, Lepore reminded them that The Dunk is not just a vaccination site, but a warehousing and distribution center for COVID-19 testing facilities all over the state. The boxes contain, among other things, roughly 1.1 million kits, including nasal swabs and rapid tests.
“These shipments come in every day,” he says.
All of the vaccination action was happening upstairs, but Lepore said that if the volume of vaccine available to dispense from The Dunk increases enough for RIDOH to book more appointments, the rink floor will be used to bring in a correspondingly higher volume of recipients as well. The seats will be pushed back to make more room for them.
If Lepore had one complaint, it's that the state hasn't done enough to call attention to how easy it is to use the facility. Just mentioning a trip to Providence can be an issue, but Lepore said the staff has done everything possible to address potential concerns with parking and access. For people with mobility issues, there are golf carts and wheelchairs on hand for an assisted lift from the parking garage.
Parking in the North Garage for the adjacent Convention Center is free for three hours – about six times the amount of time it takes to arrive, get the vaccine and return to the car. For those who are less than tech-savvy, there is help available for booking second appointments, which they are encouraged to do before they leave.
“We have tried to make it as easy as possible,” said Lepore. “That message has not been delivered as good as it could be.”
The personnel who staff the site are an eclectic assortment of National Guard members, Dunkin' Donuts “ambassadors,” nursing students from Rhode Island College and Johnson & Wales University and regular Dunk employees doing security, traffic and people-flow chores. Vaccinations are administered by nurses from a private firm, The Wellness Company.
For arrivals, first contact with the intake process happens when they're still in their vehicles as they approach the facility at One LaSalle Square. They'll be greeted on the street by a member of the Guard who will direct them toward the parking garage. When they exit they'll walk a short distance from the back of The Dunk to the front entryway.
Once they enter the building, arrivals are steered toward the queue of waiting vaccine recipients, then to the box office, where they're checked in and given a registration card. Then they're moved to the vaccination stations to get the shot, at which point the attending nurse marks the exact time on the card.
Recipients are then directed to a post-vaccination observation area, where they must wait for 15 minutes from the time marked on their card before leaving.
Before they reach the observation area, however, they're intercepted by a member of the Guard who gives them a paper marked with a QR code – a type of bar code. Scan it with a phone camera and it provides a link to a website where appointments for second vaccinations can be booked – three weeks out for the Pfizer vaccine – the only one now available at The Dunk.
There's one more station to visit before vaccine recipients can leave through the back door, and it's where staff asks if they're feeling okay and whether they need help booking their second appointment. The whole process, from start to finish, takes about 28 minutes, according to Lepore.
“We timed it,” he says.
Lepore thinks that as vaccination appointments are gradually opened to younger, more tech-savvy people with fewer mobility issues, the process will get even faster. Though there have been reports of people who don't yet meet the age requirement getting the shot, appointments are supposed to be restricted to people 65 and over for the time being, a group Lepore said comes with a heftier “hands-on” commitment from the staff.
“We're hoping, once we get younger people here we'll be able to queue through it quicker,” he said.
Along with CVS and Walgreens pharmacy locations, mass vaccination sites are a central component of RIDOH's strategy for getting the vaccine distributed through the general population in the weeks and months ahead. During the last weekly briefing, Health Director Nicole Alexander Scott said the state envision opening more sites similar to The Dunk. Another site in Cranston is already open.
Asked whether he favored a plan that relied more on retail pharmacies or mass vaccination sites to the job, Shekarchi said, “I think we need both.”
But Shekarchi said the RIDOH has to let people know how easy, fast and safe sites like The Dunk are to use in order to gain the maximum efficiency from them.
“I saw a very efficient operation where hundreds of people are being vaccinated...they've accounted for every possible contingency,” the Speaker said. “Unfortunately, if there's silence people either assume it's not being done or not being done well. In this case we need to have better communication with the public, through the media.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo