Despite having the highest 7-day average COVID-19 positivity rate in the region, the lowest vaccination percentage of the six rural counties in the Mohawk Valley and a highly publicized virus outbreak at its county jail affecting more than 80 people — the Fulton County Public Health Department still struggled to give away doses of the Moderna vaccine Thursday, leaving 60 doses unused.
“We’ve never had leftover vaccine,” Fulton County Director of Public Health Laurel Headwell said after the end of her department’s Point of Distribution [POD] vaccine clinic, held at Fulton-Montgomery Community College on Thursday.
She said Thursday’s POD was the 13th her department has operated since the start of the roll-out of the coronavirus vaccines, and it was the least successful.
“We distributed 150 first-doses and 200 second-doses, all of our second-dose appointments were full, our first-dose appointments were not full,” she said. “Our PODs run extremely smooth, and they’re well-run, but it’s just that we are struggling with getting them full in the community. In the beginning of all of this our PODs were filling up quite quickly.”
As of Saturday, New York State Dept. of Health data shows 30.6% of Fulton County residents, 16,401 people, have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. That puts Fulton County at the bottom of the counties in the Mohawk Valley region, well behind neighboring county Montgomery County (39.2% vaccinated, 19,406 people) and third from the bottom of all New York state counties, with only Orleans County (30.3% vaccinated, 12,322 people) and Allegany County (29.2% vaccinated, 13,560) ranked beneath them.
Fulton County is far behind neighboring Saratoga County (47.4% vaccinated, 109,043 people), Schenectady County (48.5% vaccinated, 75,280 people) and Albany County (48.4%, 148,755 people).
Headwell said her staff of 13 county employees has never had any difficulty distributing all of the vaccine supply provided by New York state until Thursday, when they were issuing social media messages alerting the public to a lack of appointments at the noon to 2 p.m. clinic. She said in the prior 12 PODs conducted by her department all of the vaccine was always given away, but not always to Fulton County residents.
“We’ve definitely been vaccinating people from other counties and other areas, at times,” she said. “We did such a large push in the beginning where we’re really reaching the end of our numbers at this point.”
Although the number of people willing to take the vaccine appears to be dwindling, Fulton County’s COVID-19 positivity rate among those tested for the virus has remained at the top of the region. As of Saturday, Fulton County had a 7-day average positivity of 4.7%. By comparison these local counties all had lower 7-day positivity averages: Montgomery (3.9%), Saratoga (2.8%), Schenectady (2.2%) and Albany (2.9%).
Out of New York state’s 62 counties on Saturday Fulton County ranked 4th for the highest 7-day average COVID-19 positivity, with only Sullivan (5.6%), Erie (5.8%) and Niagara (6%) counties ranked higher.
Having a 7-day average positivity above 4% has triggered restrictions on interscholastic sports. Fulton County’s school districts have suspended all “high-”risk sports competitions with districts outside of the county.
Headwell’s office has also issued five warnings of COVID-19 exposures at public places in Fulton and Montgomery counties since March 31. The warnings are distributed on the county public health department’s Facebook page, and do not always receive the warmest reception from some county residents.
“Who cares, enough is enough!” Town of Caroga resident Karen Dutcher commented on the April 14 warning about a COVID-19 exposure at Aldi’s 266 N. Comrie Ave.
Headwell said she knows she is facing a significant challenge communicating information about the importance of getting vaccinated in a county where a significant number of residents are hostile to COVID-19 restrictions and are fearful of vaccines, sometimes due to misinformation they encounter on the internet.
“People are nervous, people are scared about it,” she said. “Education, I think needs to be out there a little more, and I think the state needs to push education about why vaccines are good and why vaccines are helpful. When people are concerned, I think they need to ask questions. I don’t think people are talking to their healthcare providers enough about this and what is beneficial for them and their family. People, unfortunately, are just going to Facebook and using Facebook as their educational material, and that’s not always the best thing to do.”
THE POLITICS OF VACCINATION
Johnstown residents Victor Orsell and his mother Deborah Orsell were among the people who were vaccinated at Fulton County’s POD Thursday. Victor, a 2019 graduate of Johnstown High School, said his main motivation in getting vaccinated was that many colleges are requiring vaccination for attendance.
“And in case I wanted to go on a trip, flying, boat, anything like that, might as well get it out of the way now,” he said.
Headwell said some of the COVID-19 gathering and traveling restrictions had served as good incentives to convince some people to get vaccinated, but as New York state has loosened those restrictions, she’s seeing fewer incentives to convince vaccine hesitant people to embrace getting the shots. She said there are also some cultural disincentives among some Fulton County residents that incline people against taking the vaccine.
Headwell has twice denied the Daily Gazette’s requests to take photos at her county’s POD vaccination clinics, the only times a county department of public health has denied the newspaper’s requests to photograph vaccination efforts. She said the reason she wants to keep the media away from Fulton County’s vaccination PODS is her fear of driving more people away from them.
“When you add-on people taking photos people will say ‘where is that photo going? Who’s going to see my photo? My so and so doesn’t want me to be vaccinated, but I’m doing it for me’ — so, there’s a lot of things involved with that,” she said.
Headwell said that, while she knows there are some instances when people have decided to get vaccinated, “to avoid being the only person at their workplace who hasn’t been,” in Fulton County sometimes the opposite sentiment prevails.
“There’s definitely peer pressure against [vaccination],” she said.
A Quinnipiac University Poll released Wednesday identified political party registration as a key factor in vaccine hesitancy across the United States.
According to the poll, 45% of Republicans who responded were not planning to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 7% of Democrats and 29% of independents.
A Siena College Research Institute poll released Feb. 16 showed similar results with 35% of Republicans responding to the poll saying they would pass on receiving the vaccine, compared to only 17% of Democrats and 21% of independents.
The bottom three counties in New York state for the percentage of residents who have received at least one dose of vaccine each have a relatively high percentage of voters registered as Republicans: Fulton County, 48.4% registered Republican, Orleans County, 47.5% registered Republican and Allegany County, 50.29% registered Republican.
Local counties with higher levels of vaccination than Fulton County have lower percentages of Republican voters, even when registered Republicans outnumber Democrats, such as in Montgomery County (35.3% registered Republican) and Saratoga County (36.9% registered Republican).
Elected officials may also behave differently in counties where the political parties are more closely balanced than in Fulton County, where often the most important election for any given office is the Republican Party primary, and many elections don’t even include a general election contest.
In Montgomery County, Republican County Executive Matt Ossenfort has been a vocal and visible proponent of vaccination, conducting weekly COVID-19 Facebook live streaming video briefings throughout the course of the pandemic. When Ossenfort received his vaccination he did so publicly, stating that he wanted to set a positive example for others. District 9 County Legislator Robert Purtell, a Democrat, did the same.
Headwell said she believes peer groups are an important part of where vaccine hesitancy comes from, and something people should try to resist.
“People have to do what’s right for them, and not worry about what their friend or somebody they know is posting online,” she said. “Because sometimes what people are posting online is not even what they are doing. People getting vaccinated are sometimes the ones putting out messaging saying ‘don’t wear a mask,’ and all of that stuff.”
Headwell said Fulton County has a vaccine task force that meets often to discuss strategies for promoting vaccine use, and the topic of what role public officials should play has come up for discussion. She said in Fulton County politicians or appointed officials trying to lead the way can be a double edged sword.
“If somebody doesn’t like me, and they see that I got my vaccine then they may say ‘well I’m not going to get it, because I don’t like that person’,” she said. “In certain areas, if you have a leader or government official who is pro-vaccination then I think more people will follow, and if somebody is against it then people will be against it — it goes both ways.”
Fulton County Administrator Jon Stead said Fulton County has decided against using the same kind of Facebook live streaming video communications strategy deployed by Montgomery County, in part because one of the conventions of social media includes comments posted by other users.
“It can generate a lot of negative and mis- information, because people who are commenting there’s no control over them commenting with accurate information,” he said.
Stead said Fulton County is rolling out a traditional media campaign including print ads and a few thousand dollars’ worth of radio ads to promote the availability of COVID-19 vaccines at private sector pharmacies. He said the county will also use its Hyper-Reach calling system to notify the public of where they can get the vaccine.
He said he believes New York state did not bring Fulton County’s drug pharmacies online fast enough as points of distribution for the vaccine when demand for the vaccine was higher.
“For a while the local public health POD was the only access point,” Stead said. “The pharmacies are a real good outlet, and we’re going to try to remind people that they can go there, if they choose. There seems to be a hesitancy in this region, I’m not going to mince words.”
Montgomery County Public Health Director Sara Boerenko said she believes public officials must bear the burden of how their choices regarding the COVID-19 vaccines will be perceived by the public, and whether their example will encourage or discourage people from choosing to be vaccinated. In the case of her county, she believes geography and infrastructure have played a larger role in her county’s vaccination numbers than politics.
“I honestly think it’s because we’re on the Thruway,” she said. “Because Amsterdam, Canajoharie and Fultonville [have Thruway exits] we have people who work for the state in Albany, or people work in places where they got on the Thruway, and a lot of the vaccine sites where they are literally just off of the Thruway. I really don’t think it has anything to do with what we’re doing. I just think, geographically, in Montgomery County we’re just closer to places to locations that are convenient.”
OUTBREAK AT FULTON COUNTY JAIL
A viral outbreak at Fulton County’s jail illustrates how local vaccine hesitancy can stretch across groups as different as jail inmates and law enforcement and corrections officers.
On March 24, two COVID-19 positive cases were identified among the approximately 120 inmates at Fulton County’s jail. The jail, which features dormitory-style cells, was placed on lockdown and testing was conducted on the inmates and the staff.
Sean Piasecki, an administrator for Eastern Medical Support, the private company that handles medical support services for the jail, said since March 24, 74 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, although only 1 has been hospitalized. Thirty-one of the positive cases have resolved and are now negative, leaving 43 inmates COVID-19 positive as of Thursday.
Piasecki said of the jail’s 54 corrections officers, 19 have tested positive for COVID-19 since the outbreak, but 8 have returned to duty with 11 still out sick from the virus.
None of the inmates at the jail have been vaccinated yet and the facility will likely have to wait until April 26 before attempting to vaccinate any of the inmates in order to clear the quarantine time for the remaining positive cases, a problem made worse by the dormitory-style jail cells.
Whenever the vaccination is able to occur, nearly half of the inmates are unlikely to take the shot.
“As of [Thursday], out of 97 inmates, only 52 want it,” he said.
Sheriff Richard Giardino said the percentage of interest in the COVID-19 vaccine among his staff is similarly low. He said when the vaccine was offered to all of Fulton County’s 54 corrections staff only 20 chose to take it. He said 13 of the county’s 26 road patrol chose to be vaccinated and 9 staff members between the remaining 18 employees of the sheriff’s office have chosen to be vaccinated.
After the outbreak was publicized, Giardino had said he believed less than half of the sheriff’s department had chosen to take the vaccine. Yet, numbers he provided last week would put his non-corrections officer staff at 50% vaccinated, as far as he was aware.
Interest in the COVID-19 vaccine seems to vary between sheriff’s departments in the local region and inmates at local jails.
In Montgomery County Sheriff Jeff Smith has publicly advocated taking the vaccine, but only 65 of his 119-member staff, including corrections officers, have agreed to take the vaccine. When Montgomery County’s jail inmates were offered the vaccine last week, only 23 of 77 inmates agreed to take it.
Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo said 280 out the 293 employees in his department have taken the COVID-19 vaccine, including himself. He said 75 out of the 150 inmates at the Saratoga County Jail received vaccines last week. Zurlo said he played no role in persuading either staff or inmates to take the vaccine.
“I didn’t convince them. I just put it out there,” he said. “It’s a personal preference, and most of the people wanted it. I didn’t convince anybody. I think people saw that the pandemic was here, and they wanted to protect themselves. I was pretty close to the last one. I wanted to make sure the members of my department got it first.”
Schenectady County Sheriff Dominic D’Agostino said out of the 215 employees in his department 96 have been vaccinated while another 41 contracted COVID-19 over the past year and have taken tests showing they have natural antibodies against the virus. He said the vaccine was offered to the 164 inmates at the Schenectady County jail last week, and although 42 inmates have signed up to receive the vaccine, only 25 agreed to take it.
“I think there are a lot of concerns about the vaccine with the Johnson & Johnson issue last week,” D’Agostino said. “Initially we were going to give them the Johnson & Johnson, because it’s one shot, one and done, and we thought it would be more effective because a person may not be in our custody weeks later for a two-shot vaccine, but then we had to switch back to a two-shot when the Johnson & Johnson was stopped, and I think that created some reservations among our inmate population. We’re still doing our best to educate them in the hopes it will increase our numbers.”
Fulton County jail inmate Michael Deming, a resident of Gloversville, said although he’s afraid of catching COVID-19 from other inmates at the jail, he doesn’t want to take the vaccine, in part because of what he heard about the distribution of the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine being put on pause by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although he knew few of the details. He said he’s afraid of all the vaccines, and he doesn’t trust the medical officials at the jail.
“Some say you can get the virus from the vaccine,” Deming said. “That’s what I got off the news, and something about blood clots. That’s just what I’ve heard. I haven’t really checked into any of this. I’d have to ask my girlfriend about it before I decided what to do.”
U.S. CDC officials paused the distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine due to six women developing a rare blood clot.
One of Deming’s cell mates, a man named Charles Donnelly, 24, from Gloversville, said he wants to be vaccinated and has asked for the vaccine.
“I have two kids at home, so I can’t afford not to get it,” he said.
Headwell said the pause of the Johnson & Johnson may serve to increase hesitancy among some in Fulton County.
“Bad news spreads faster than good news,” she said. “And that’s usually what’s out there, and what people are listening to and hearing and sometimes that enables people to keep spreading and talking about that.”
Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple said his department got relatively lucky because it was able to administer the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine before it was paused. On Friday, he said he didn’t have an exact headcount but he thinks about 45 to 50% of the 330 inmates at his county jail took the vaccine and about 275 of his department’s 680 staff.
“Those are the ones that we sat down and assigned [vaccines to], but in fairness there could be another 20 or 30 [staff members] who just went and got it and didn’t tell us, so I wouldn’t have that data,” he said. “We can’t force them to get the shot, and some people did not want people to know they got the shot. They went down on their own, and they kept it to themselves.”
Apple said he’s not sure why an anti-vaccination culture appears to exist among some members of law enforcement, but he knows that’s a real phenomenon.
“I got my shot a couple of weeks after it was available, and I made sure everybody knew I got it, and that I trusted it and that I believed in it, in the hopes that others would follow,” he said. “For some people, believe it or not, it’s political. There are some people who have told everyone they just don’t believe in it, and they think it’s all a conspiracy, but then some of those people may have gone down and got shots, but didn’t want people to know because it would have been contradictory to what they had been spewing.”
Out of the five county sheriffs interviewed for this story, only Giardino refused to say whether he had received a COVID-19 vaccine. Each of the other four said they have been given the vaccination.
Giardino has said he does not believe it is appropriate for him as a sheriff to advocate for or against any of his staff taking the vaccine.