Johnston among Rhode Island communities hardest hit by COVID-19

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The COVID-19 pandemic hit Johnston hard.

According to data from the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH), Johnston ranked fourth in the state for COVID infection rates.

Based on the most recent available U.S. Census data, Johnston’s town population hovers around 29,322 people.

According to the RIDOH, 4,815 COVID-19 cases were reported in Johnston.

That means roughly 16 percent of Johnston residents tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

The RIDOH ranks towns and cities in the Ocean State by the rate of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people.

In that ranking, Johnston infection rates fell behind only three other municipalities: Central Falls, Providence and Smithfield.

Johnston reported 323 hospitalizations due to COVID cases, a rate of 1,105 per 100,000 population.

The RIDOH data indicates Johnston lost 161 residents to fatal cases of the virus. The RIDOH reported the town’s death rate per 100,000 people was 551 fatal cases of COVID-19.

The data reflects reported cases from March 2020 to the present.

At a recent Johnston Town Council meeting, Mayor Joseph M. Polisena said Johnston “was hit hard” by the pandemic.

As a mayor, and a registered nurse, he has a few opinions why the virus affected Johnston more than other towns.

“Our high elderly population, that’s number one,” Polisena said this week. “Some survived, and some passed away. My thoughts and prayers are with their families.”

Once vaccines became available, the tide started to turn in Johnston. However, convincing town residents to get the vaccine required a lot of hard work by town officials.

“Some were reluctant to get vaccinated,” Polisena said. “But then we held events and I did robocalls, and I think once people realized it was safe, they got the vaccine. I think people were reluctant to get the vaccine, and now they’re more comfortable getting the vaccine.”

According to Johnston Police Chief Joseph P. Razza, the town held highly successful regional POD (Point of Distribution) events.

Razza estimates that between the regional PODs hosted by the town, clinics for residents over 75 years old and school personnel, approximately 13,000 people were vaccinated in Johnston.

Johnston Police will host National Night Out on Aug. 3 at Johnston War Memorial Park from 5 to 8 p.m.

In an effort to help Rhode Island reach its goal of vaccinating more Rhode Islanders against COVID-19, Johnston has partnered with the RIDOH to host a free vaccination clinic during the festivities. No appointment is necessary.

“I know that they’re still offering vaccinations, and residents can get vaccinated at the National Night Out with the police,” Polisena said.

He added, that if needed, “we’re ready, willing and able to reopen our PODs.”

“I think it was all about timing,” Polisena said. “Once we got rolling, after a week or so, people couldn’t get appointments. Our spots were filling up in about 10 minutes. The more people got vaccinated, we started seeing a decline in the number of people getting infected.”

Polisena said inconsistent messages from the federal government have complicated matters.

“I think the federal government is making things harder,” Polisena said. “Now they’re saying, recommending, to wear a mask indoors even if you’re vaccinated. I think the federal government is sending mixed signals.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control has changed its guidance regarding mask-wearing for the general public, and in schools, several times.

“My heart goes out to these young children who have to wear masks,” Polisena said. “It’s a type of isolation. It’s very difficult. But it’s a pandemic.”

Polisena has spoke to Razza and Johnston Fire Chief Peter J. Lamb, regarding another round of clinics if clear data is released regarding vaccination booster shots.

“If they come out with a booster, we’ll be the first to open up a clinic for booster shots,” Polisena said.

Ranking high on the state’s list of COVID infections weighs heavily on the mayor’s mind.

“This has been trial and error,” Polisena said. “It’s something we’ve never really seen. It’s concerning. There’s no doubt about it.”

He said he supports vaccination mandates, but also supports his constituents’ right to choose for themselves whether they should get the shot.

“The vaccine has saved a lot of lives,” Polisena said. “I would like to see more people get vaccinated, but that’s their choice. Though I don’t have a problem with mandating it.”

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