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How Hamilton County got a 40% vaccination rate

It has a smaller, older population than any other NY county

More than 100,000 people in the North Country have been vaccinated against COVID-19, about 25% of the region’s population. A lot of vaccines are being administered at state-run sites, pharmacies and hospitals.

Hamilton County doesn’t have access to any of those places, and yet it’s vaccinated more than 40% of its population.

When coronavirus vaccines first became available in New York, Bill Farber picked up the phone and dialed Albany. Farber is board chairman of Hamilton County.

“I was really candid with the state right up front,” said Farber.” I said, ‘We all know that you’re not going to come to Hamilton County and set up a pop-up site.”

“The only way that this is going to work for me is if you allow me to play the role of the tortoise.'” As in, tortoise and the hare. Farber was pitching the state on a slow and steady vaccine rollout.

“I’m going to have to just go at the pace that I can,” Farber said he told the state. “You work with me on the vaccine, and we’ll get it out as fast as we can.”

Hamilton County has mostly been spared during the pandemic. Among its 4,500 residents, none has died of COVID, and about 300 have tested positive since last March. That’s meant health officials have had to spend less time contact tracing and worrying about quarantines, and more time prepping for the vaccine rollout.

Farber says another thing that makes Hamilton County unique is how many people qualified early on to be vaccinated. “I really had high percentages of eligibility that others didn’t have.”

Hamilton County has the oldest population per capita. It also has the highest percentage statewide of people with disabilities, according to data gathered by Cornell University.

In early January the county health department started hosting three to four vaccine clinics a week, in places like Indian Lake and Lake Pleasant.

By the fourth week of January, more than 20% of the county was vaccinated. Now, more than 40% of residents have received the vaccine. Farber says a lot of people have been chipping in.

“It’s been an extraordinary team effort. It’s thanks to the partnerships we had with the state; it’s thanks to the partnerships we had locally.”

Adele Burnett is one of those locals who chipped in. Burnett is the director of tourism for the Hamilton County town of Inlet.

“Since day one I’ve felt like it’s something I needed to do,” said Burnett.

At first, Burnett was meeting with the business community, strategizing on how to keep places open. Then she started talking with restaurant and hotel owners in Hamilton County.

“And then they started doing testing sites around the county, and they’d come to Inlet, and I wanted to make sure people knew when and where the testing sites were. And then they started doing vaccines, and I said, ‘Well, I’ve just got to keep going,’ so I did.”

Burnett volunteers on the county’s registration task force. She’s given a list of residents who are eligible to get vaccinated and calls them up to schedule an appointment. Doing this work meant that Burnett was also eligible. She got her first dose a few weeks ago.

“It was easy, no problem,” said Burnett. “It was kind of like a flu shot. My arm was a little stiff the next day.”

Burnett is scheduled to get her second dose Thursday. She’s volunteering at the vaccine clinic in Inlet where she says nearly 90 other residents are also set to get their shots.

“I’ll definitely feel better knowing that I’ve had both doses,” said Burnett, “but I’m still going to practice those [precautions] — wearing a mask, social distancing. There’s still no proof that I can’t carry [COVID], and I don’t want to spread it to anyone.”

The county had to reschedule a clinic set for Indian Lake on Thursday because of a shipping delay with Moderna. More clinics are planned around the county in the coming weeks.

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