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Vaccine numbers are up in some rural communities despite internet inequity

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In Montgomery County, nearly one in four households don’t have internet access and some towns don’t even have reliable cell service.

So, about four years ago its public health director, Sara Boerenko, brought some state officials out to the more rural parts of her county to showcase this problem.

“I said, pull out your cell phone and tell me how many bars you have, and the woman who was very well dressed from [the] New York State Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services said, ‘well, I don't have cell phone service,’” she said. “I said exactly.”

In Hamilton County–which only has nine small towns despite being the geographically third-largest county in the state–things aren’t much different.

While this lack of broadband is not a new phenomenon in these counties, the pandemic has really showcased this inequity. Bill Farber, the chairman of Hamilton County’s Board of Supervisors, said the communities that make up his county’s small towns have really rallied to organize vaccine distribution.

“What our nursing service and volunteers have had to go through, through tracing and tracking and now getting people signed up for the vaccine, has really been a Herculean effort that shouldn't have to happen in this day and age,” he said.

Now, with vaccine appointments mostly available online, many would think these rural counties would be struggling. However, Montgomery County is right on par with the state’s vaccination numbers and Hamilton County has given the first dose to 52% of its population–double the state average as of March 15.

“It's a lot of volunteers that have really stepped up throughout the county to make this possible,” said Farber about his county’s success.

Both counties have a slew of volunteers coordinating people’s appointments and calling seniors who either don’t have internet access or just aren’t tech-savvy.

“We cold-called 100 senior citizens and offered them the vaccine,” said Boerenko. “And that was it. That's all I had was 100 vaccines.”

Boerenko said Montgomery County didn’t even make their vaccines public when they first got them, instead they individually contacted eligible residents. Boerenko also goes on the radio every week to give listeners the phone number to request a vaccine.

Farber said that volunteers in Hamilton County have also been booking online appointments on behalf of others with their own personal computers from either their homes or local community centers that offer free WiFi.

“None of this would have been possible if it hadn't really been a community effort, community by community,” said Farber. He and Boerenko are both in awe at the strength of their communities.

To make a vaccine appointment in Montgomery County, call 518-853-8247, and for Hamilton County, call 518-648-6141.