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Star Lake hospital sets example for remote inoculations

Clifton-Fine Hospital CEO Dierdra Sorrell, who’s also a registered nurse, injects Edith Stowell with Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine Friday at a clinic inside the Star Lake Fire Department. (Provided photo — Christopher Lenney, Watertown Daily Times)

STAR LAKE — Clifton-Fine Hospital is taking a hands-on, community-focused approach to COVID-19 vaccine distribution in the sparsely populated and demographically older southern parts of St. Lawrence County.

Earlier this week, Clifton-Fine Hospital, a facility with just 26 staffed hospital beds, received 400 doses of the Moderna vaccine. By Friday, staff from the hospital mobilized to set up a POD, or point of distribution, and get northern Adirondack region residents vaccinated. Despite having a small staff and limited other resources like space and equipment, the hospital was able to put together the clinic and use all the doses before the end of the day Friday.

“We’re a little team, but we’ve got a lot going on,” Clifton-Fine CEO Dierdra Sorrell said while standing in the kitchen of the Star Lake Fire Hall, seemingly the only square footage of the building not actively being used for vaccinations.

Arrows on the floor made with electrical tape direct people through the hall of the fire company to a gathering room to complete paperwork. Dividers and some sheets separate a few areas for the shots to be given before recipients are directed into the bays next to fire apparatuses to wait for a few minutes on old metal folding chairs before leaving.

“I do emergency preparedness. I don’t want to say this is my dream come true, but this is what I’ve been training for years,” Clifton-Fine Director of Emergency Operations Lynne Backus said Friday.

Her brother, Rick Rusaw, is the chief of Star Lake Fire Department and lent the facility in an instant, Backus said.

Everyone is helping.

For the last two days, she’s arrived at the facility at 7 a.m. The water district manager arrives at 5 a.m. and has the parking lot cleared by the time she’s there two hours later.

“It’s the community,” Backus said before dashing off to hop in an ambulance to respond to a call, wearing her other hat as an EMT.

Everyone’s helping not just at the physical site, either.

Star Lake is an hour away from the state-run vaccination site at SUNY Potsdam, and at least another hour from any other clinic, making it imperative for people who couldn’t make the trip to get in at the local POD. One family packed two carloads full of eligible people. Others helped get the word out and schedule appointments by phone.

“Everyone’s all-in when there’s anything going on,” Sorrell said Friday. She’s a registered nurse who can and did administer at least one dose Friday.

“Even though we’re small, we were able to deploy two PODs of people to travel and still held a clinic,” she said. “Everyone just stepped forward and said, ‘What do you need me to do?'”

Right now, about 13,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed to the seven counties in the north country each week. Those include Jefferson, Lewis, St. Lawrence, Franklin, Clinton, Essex and Hamilton counties.

About 7,000 of those are reserved for the two state-run sites in Potsdam and Plattsburgh, the others are distributed between hospitals, pharmacies and county public health departments.

While demand is extremely high, and supply of the vaccine is still miniscule, the parity of equitable distribution is fully visible.

In Star Lake, like many parts of the north country, it’s evident that distribution will have to take a different tack, one that not only keeps the community in mind, but uses its resources to full advantage.

“I think we’re working so hard to demonstrate that if you give it to us, we can do it,” Sorrell said.

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