SARATOGA COUNTY — I’ve been waiting patiently.
I qualify to get the COVID-19 vaccine based on my age, and I’ve been closely watching — and sometimes writing about — the much-criticized national and state vaccine rollout, with full knowledge that initial demand dwarfed supply. Other folks are older, less healthy or in occupations more essential to the public health than an aging newsman.
I also spent enough years driving to Potsdam when my son was in college to know that’s WAY too far to drive for vaccination. Twice.
But a couple of weeks ago Saratoga County, where I live, started an on-line vaccine wait list, knowing the day was coming when county Public Health Services starts receiving a regular weekly supply of vaccine. That day is now.
I put my name on the county wait list last Sunday, assuming it still might be weeks before I get an appointment.
But vaccine access is increasing rapidly. Just among my circle of friends and acquaintances, the number who have had at least one dose — or are about to get it — has skyrocketed just this week. Schenectady, Albany and Rensselaer counties on Wednesday announced a vaccine partnership, and Schenectady County announced plans for a “pop-up” clinic for seniors Sunday at the Rivers casino.
Saratoga County, which has been dispensing the Moderna vaccine to first-responders and other high-priority professions, this week got its first Pfizer doses from the state, and directed that they go to people who have crossed the three-score-and-five threshold.
So lo and behold, on Wednesday, I got the call. My phone blocked it as potential “spam.” No message. But the caller ID was “CNTYSARATOGAPH.” A little while later, the number called again and was blocked. No message. This time, though, I called it back. A nice woman told me my name had been pulled at random from the wait list, but federal privacy laws prevented her leaving a message. So the first lesson is: If it looks like it might be a government office, answer the phone.
In that call, I got asked the questions you’d expect: Was I feeling well? Had I ever had an allergic reaction to a vaccine? Any other recent vaccinations? I’d answer all those questions again at least three more times in the next 24 hours.
Appointments were available the next morning at the county Public Health Services building, just outside Ballston Spa in the town of Milton. I signed up. Me and hundreds of other people who also got called.
On arrival, I joined a steady stream of people mostly significantly older than me, and some infirm — county residents who were willing to travel to Ballston Spa, but less apt to make a trip to a state mass vaccination site in Albany, Utica, or Plattsburgh. Inside the front door, it looked chaotic, but turned out to be pretty organized.
Everyone had to go to a four- or five-station registration table in the building lobby, answer the questions, get their temperature shot, and be given some paperwork to read on the two-shot Pfizer vaccine. Since eligibility was based on age, I only had to show my driver’s license. Sheriff’s deputies were around, in case the crowd got out of hand, I guess.
Then the wait in line. It snaked almost back to the front door, but moved quickly. There were yellow tape arrows on the floor to follow. Down a corridor into the public health offices, where nurses were set up in five or six small exam rooms. Getting the shot itself took less than five minutes.
A small team led by my experienced and wonderful public health nurse, Gwyn Kaszmarek, confirmed who I was and asked me the by-now familiar questions. Then it was roll-up-sleeve time. Gwyn let me know that the immune response actually takes a couple of weeks to kick in — some full immunity won’t come until two weeks after the second dose.
Gwyn was a little concerned that I didn’t have on an undershirt in case I bled, but that didn’t stop either of us. She explained that the vaccine could leave me with a sore arm (not yet, but ask me again tomorrow) and possible flu-like symptoms, but that would be more likely after the second dose, in three weeks. A little pinch. A bandage. Done!
No bleeding, but a grin under my mask.
Once the shot was done, it was back down the corridor I had come through to a waiting room. There, I gave my name and had to wait 15 minutes to see if there was an adverse reaction. During that time, they schedule all first-shot patients for their second dose.
Those few minutes flew by quickly. I’ve been a reporter in and around Saratoga County for decades, so people know me. I talked to county officials, they talked to me, praising the volunteers from a half-dozen county departments who were helping register and process us recipients, pointing out that the county vaccination clinics will be moving all around the county as more vaccine comes in. Then I was cleared to go.
The whole process took maybe 45 minutes, and would have been shorter if so many friends didn’t want to bend my ear.
As of Thursday, Saratoga County will have given first doses to at least 44,000 county residents — close to 20 percent of the population.
Some 11,000 people are on the county wait list, which is open to seniors, people with health conditions, and anyone else eligible under state guidelines. As vaccines become available either directly from the county Public Health Service or any partners like drug store chains, names are randomly selected from the list and those people are notified, county officials said.
People can still get onto the list the way I did, at www.saratogacountyny.gov/vax, but starting this week those who find it easier can add their name by calling 518-693-1075, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, or 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekends.
The county is also mailing 40,000 postcards to senior citizens advising them about how to get on the vaccine wait list. The Saratoga Springs City Center remains on lease for the day when the county has the ability to administer thousands of doses per day, and what they’re doing now is good practice for that.
“We’re being pretty aggressive,” said county Commissioner of Emergency Services Carl Zeilman.
County Emergency Medical Services Coordinator Michael MacEvoy told me all 10 ambulance corps in the county are involved in efforts to get vaccines to the homebound — an effort being eyed by the state as a model for how to reach the homebound in remote rural areas. He said some names are coming through the vaccine registration list, while others are picked by the ambulance corps themselves, because they’re aware of who is isolated or in frail health in their communities.
Back at the office, I talked to Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, who is pushing for more involvement of ambulance corps in getting vaccine into rural communities.
“We cannot reach critical mass in vaccinations without reaching these rural communities,” said Santabarbara, Assembly chair of the Legislative Commission on Rural Resources.