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Jefferson County providers host community-run vaccine clinic

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Jefferson Community College in Watertown seemed like a ghost town last Friday. There were only a handful of cars across the entire campus and not a single student walking to class. However, if you followed the ambiguous event parking signs staggered along the main road, you’d pull into a nearly full parking lot outside of the college’s gym.

Inside, Samantha Burke–a clerk for Jefferson County and a volunteer firefighter–was getting her first dose of the vaccine just three days after she booked it on Tuesday.

“I checked all day, so it was a couple of hours that I checked,” said Burke. “I kept refreshing it and checking in every day.”

Burke was one of over 1,000 people to get vaccinated so far at the college. The clinic, which just opened about a month ago, is the product of collaboration among local healthcare providers to bring the vaccine closer to residents.

“We were thankful that the state set up those large [point of distribution] sites up in Potsdam and then down to Syracuse,” said Jeff Leiendecker, emergency preparedness coordinator for Jefferson County’s Public Health Department. “But especially this time of year, it's not really functional for folks to drive that distance, standing in lines and such.”

Leiendecker said that his department, along with the local healthcare providers who are contributing their state-provided vaccines to the clinic, was worried about their residents traveling hours away for appointments.

“We figured pooling all of our resources together to offer larger clinics to the community would be a better approach,” he said.

April Fallon from North Country Family Health Center agreed with Leiendecker that for many Jefferson County residents, that kind of travel isn’t practical, especially during the winter months.

“Many people in Watertown signed up for the Potsdam site, and they're driving from Watertown to Potsdam,” said Fallon. “That's why it's kind of ridiculous.”

In fact, Burke would’ve had to make the trek up to Potsdam herself had she not found out about this local clinic. However, she wasn’t worried that she would’ve made it to Potsdam and back safely, she was worried for older residents.

“Having one in Potsdam for this area is not...acceptable, I would say, because there are so many older people out here that can't drive to Potsdam,” said Burke.

Protecting their residents was the main goal in establishing this clinic, according to Leiendecker and Fallon. Some other providers such as Carthage Hospital, River Hospital, Samaritan Medical Center, and the Volunteer Transportation Center have contributed to this joint effort.

With all of its benefits, the clinic has seen some challenges according to Leiendecker.

“We don't know until the week prior how much is coming in the following week,” he said. This short-notice means the clinic can only book out roughly a week in advance, and it also only operates one or two times a week since it is such a small operation compared to a state-run site.

One of the biggest hurdles the clinic has faced is internet accessibility.

“There are strategies that are being discussed as far as how we're going to construct the clinics to ensure that those who don't have high-speed internet or internet access at all will still have doses available for appointments solely for that aspect,” said Leiendecker.

He said the clinic is working on reserving a certain number of doses for an established hotline for those who either don’t have broadband or aren’t internet savvy.

“We are being cognizant of some of those things and trying, as we move forward, to best address populations,” he said. “But we're kind of in a learning curve ourselves.”

He expects the clinic to have more and more vaccines as they become more available. New clinics will be announced on the county health department's website.