Mark Reynolds, The Providence Journal
Richard Scott was in Georgia. Other emergency workers like him were scattered across the United States.
But they were just a phone call away in late February as Rhode Island officials analyzed their options for ramping up vaccinations and saving lives one year into the pandemic.
On March 1, they asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to deploy a team that would reinforce the legions of local vaccinators who were already on the job.
That’s how Scott, a 73-year-old police instructor from Brunswick, Georgia, ended up on the floor of The Dunk, playing for a team that, as of Tuesday morning, was capable of vaccinating 3,000 people per day.
Scott was among 135 emergency workers deployed to the downtown venue, which more typically hosts rowdier crowds late March as NCAA hockey and basketball teams pursue national championships. Another group, also coordinated by FEMA, staffs a vaccination center in Middletown.
FEMA’s largest-ever disaster relief effort in RI
Overall, FEMA has brought in a force of 201 workers to support Rhode Island’s vaccination effort this month, drafting personnel from more than 20 different federal agencies.
They are in Rhode Island for 45 days, putting a face on FEMA’s largest-ever disaster relief effort in Rhode Island.
“Everyone here that I’m working with is looking to make a difference,” Scott said. “A positive difference. On our end a positive difference is to get as many people through here safely vaccinated as quickly as we possibly can to make the country that much better.
Rhode Island was the first New England state to ask for federal help with the job of vaccinating its population, says Emily Martuscello, a FEMA manager from New Hampshire who has coordinated staffing at both vaccination sites.
“It’s the biggest emergency everyone’s ever been a part of,” she said. “It’s ginormous.”
Scott’s background is in law enforcement. He’s an instructor with the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers.
The Surge Capacity Force
His 48 years in police work encompass stints at the New York Police Department serving with the training branch of the FBI.
He is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Surge Capacity Force.
If an emergency exceeds the capacity of FEMA’s disaster workforce, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security activates the surge force to help.
“We have members of the Surge Capacity Force deployed all over this country right now,” says Martuscello “It’s the biggest deployment I think we’ve ever had.”
Scott’s emergency work has taken him to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria.
Now in Rhode Island for his first time, his job is greeting patients as they arrive on the floor of The Dunk and head toward registration.
“As the people come down and once they hit this floor, we try to move them through the process in a timely but safe manner.”
Biolab technicians from the U.S. Department of Agriculture handle vaccine supply.
Two commissioned officers from the U.S. Public Health Service, both of them in combat-style blue fatigues, are on the scene, too.
“We have very rigorous quality control in place to make sure the right person gets the right vaccine at the right time,” says Martuscello.
Emergency medical technicians and paramedics from the U.S. Forestry Service are among the vaccinators.
All of them are licensed and received training from both the National Guard and the Rhode Island Department of Health, says Martuscello. The preparation, she says, included competency tests.
Tom Trask, 32, a U.S. Forest Service Ranger, is wearing his forest ranger uniform under a vest that says vaccinator on the back.
Typically, Trask, of Conway, N.H., inspects timber operations and manages wildland fires.
As an EMT, he has experience with certain types of injections, such as epinephrine for allergic reactions, but this is his first time administering vaccines, he says.
“We’re pretty much an all-hazard resource,” Trask says. “We do anything and everything we can to help people.”
A husband-wife team of U.S. Forest Service workers, Robert and Judy Beanblossum of Pisgah Forest, North Carolina, are among staff who watch over people just after they receive the vaccine. They are versed on different signs of allergic reaction to look out for.
In 45 days, the Rhode Island tour of the Beanblossums and others on the team is expected to end, says Martuscello. At that point, an ongoing hiring effort should be ready to fill those jobs with locals.
Joseph Wendelken, spokesman for the Rhode Island Department of Health, says the state had requested “human resources” from FEMA so it would be prepared to administer increased volumes of vaccine.
‘Federally supported, state managed and locally executed’
The state also requested the help “to meet the new federal and state accelerated vaccination timelines” and its request was “encouraged” by FEMA officials, Wendelken said in a statement.
“COVID-19 vaccination saves lives,” he said.
While FEMA has staffed the two sites, the agency does not manage them, which lines up with a comment made by Martuscello: “We have a mantra here at FEMA that things are federally supported, state managed and locally executed.”
The support from FEMA is among “critical pieces” that have made it possible for the state to put resources into tasks such as vaccine outreach, providing geographically dispersed vaccination sites and vaccinating some of the hardest-hit communities. That includes communities of color and people who are homebound, he says.
Tuesday marked a full year since then-President Donald Trump declared the coronavirus to be a disaster in Rhode Island.
As of March 24, FEMA had committed $456 million in disaster-relief aid, according to a FEMA spokesman, Kevin Sur.
That aid works through a reimbursement process.
By last Thursday, FEMA had supplied: 3,710,926 gloves, 586,847 face shields, 220,407 surgical gowns, 586,303 surgical masks, 1,152,600 N95 respirators and 100 ventilators.
Those flows of aid represent another level of support beyond the extra staffing for the vaccination clinics this spring, says Armand Randolph, who heads up the recovery branch of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency.
Randolph was struck by the meals that FEMA has provided — more than 505,000 box meals. Randolph says those meals went to residents, including people who could not leave their homes for medical reasons.
Randolph says that assistance isn’t as valuable as the diverse emergency workers who came to southern New England this month, “willing to deploy from their loved ones to come here and assist with saving the lives of Rhode Islanders.”
By the numbers
Cases in R.I.: 136,765 (346 reported Tuesday)
Negative tests in R.I.: 3,333,621 (12,963 reported Tuesday, 2.7% positive rate)
R.I. COVID-related deaths: 2,618 (5 reported Tuesday)
Rhode Islanders hospitalized with COVID: 123 (15 in intensive care)
Fully vaccinated in R.I.: 214,764 (334,878 at least partially vaccinated)
Cases in Mass.: 631,031
Mass. COVID-related deaths: 17,130
Cases in U.S.: 30,378,955
U.S. COVID-related deaths: 550,727