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Northen NY vaccine hub works to ensure consistent approach

Cars line up for COVID-19 vaccine appointments at the 213 Connecticut Rd. COVID-19 vaccination site in Plattsburgh on Jan. 18. Retail pharmacies continue to be directed to vaccinate only those who are 65 or older, after administering the jabs to their own patient-facing staff. (Provided photo — Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo)

PLATTSBURGH — About 20% of eligible adults in the seven-county North Country region have received their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. Wouter Rietsema says.

And 8% have received both doses, a figure that has more than doubled since the beginning of this month.

Consistent approach

Rietsema, an infectious disease physician and the vice president of population health and information services at University of Vermont Health Network, Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital, serves as the coordinator of the Northern New York Regional Vaccination Hub.

He said the group’s role has not changed much since vaccine rollout began in December with the Pfizer/BioNTech and, later, Moderna candidates receiving emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Prior to when vaccine was distributed, the hub developed a plan that was submitted to the state, later moving into a coordination role as jabs started to flow.

A task force meets multiple times each week to answer questions and make sure the region’s different stakeholders understand current guidelines.

“We’re really just helping different vaccine components of our task force do what they need to do,” Rietsema said.

The task force comes together to formulate plans when the state pushes out new initiatives, such as the recent expansion of vaccine eligibility to include people with certain comorbidities.

“We have a call with the health department and ask, ‘What do you think is the best way to do that?’ to ensure we have a consistent approach across the North Country,” Rietsema said.

Equity Task Force

The hub also has an Equity Task Force whose work is starting up, Rietsema said, adding that health equity concerns in a rural area like the North Country tend to be different from those in an urban setting.

While the urban focus may be on ethnic populations, he continued, noting there are certainly pockets of ethnic groups in northern New York, work in the seven counties will look in particular at the challenges faced by elderly people, especially those who are poor and/or live remotely.

These people may not have internet access or, if they do, may not be all that familiar with it, Rietsema added.

“They’re going to be challenged in accessing vaccine when the prime mechanism is the internet — how do you know where to go? How do you schedule a vaccine?”

The Equity Task Force has been working with counties’ offices of the aging to help people access vaccine registration, and is trying to identify other available resources to help people in each county, Rietsema said.

Effective messaging

The Equity Task Force is also looking to create messaging that works for different communities as well as determine what forms of communication will be effective.

For example, Rietsema said, if the Clinton County Health Department were to hold a vaccine clinic, will or won’t its active social media presence suffice for notifying people who live in more remote areas?

In some towns, the doctor continued, a local post office or other place may serve as the community center where people go to for news.

“Our goal is to pull together funding to create messaging that’s not all on the internet,” the doctor said.

“What we’re trying to do is create materials that can be used in communities by the office of the aging or by the health department to share so they are not distracted from primary work they need to do.”

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