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‘This is ending the pandemic’

Counties host Tri-Lakes area’s largest vaccine clinic yet

Essex County Public Health Director Linda Beers, left, and Franklin County Public Health Director Kathleen Strack pose at a joint vaccine clinic their departments hosted at the North Country Community College Saranac Lake campus on Thursday. (Enterprise photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

SARANAC LAKE — The smiles were hidden behind masks, but the joy in the room was palpable.

The coronavirus pandemic has been hard for almost everyone. The pandemic has taken the lives of more than half a million people, it’s caused millions of people to lose their jobs, plunge into financial uncertainty or forced people to face risking their safety to continue working. It has caused businesses to go under, weakened students’ school experience, strained health care systems. For those working in public health, it’s meant working long hours and fighting every day against a virus that keeps spreading.

Some days are difficult. Other days are different.

This past Thursday, the Essex and Franklin County health departments joined together to stage the largest coronavirus vaccine clinic they’ve hosted to date. Altogether, 600 people — mostly eligible essential workers and those with preexisting medical conditions — were administered coronavirus vaccine doses. The clinic was at North Country Community College, an institution both counties help pay for, in Saranac Lake, a place with a history deeply rooted in public health.

Both county health departments are small, with fewer than a dozen employees each. Franklin County has seen at least 2,275 confirmed positives over the past year, and Essex County has seen at least 1,427. Each of those positive cases required contact tracing.

Nurse Gail Lautenschuetz, of Lake Placid, administers a dose of coronavirus vaccine to Alan Dabiew of North Bangor on Thursday, Feb. 25, at the North Country Community College gym in Saranac Lake. (Enterprise photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

Putting vaccines in arms felt like “the light at the end of the rainbow,” said Franklin County Public Health Director Kathleen Strack.

“Any day you get to vaccinate people is a great day,” said Essex County Public Health Director Linda Beers. “The opposite end of that is sitting in rooms day after day, week after week, night after night, calling people and either telling them they have COVID, listening to people who have COVID every day, trying to talk them down from being scared and frightened.”

The college’s gym was bustling throughout the day. It was filled with a sound scarcely heard in the past year — dozens of people together in person, speaking all at once, without the buffering or accidental muting that goes with video calls. Residents chatted as they sat in a waiting area after receiving their doses. Volunteers asked screening questions. Public health and volunteer medical staff administered vaccines and directed people.

The clinic was born from a multi-agency collaboration.

Initially, both county health departments planned to pool together their weekly allotment of vaccine doses, bringing the total number of people they could vaccinate up to 400. But Saranac Lake’s Adirondack Medical Center pitched in another 100 doses, and the Essex County Health Department moved a planned second-dose clinic in Lake Placid to Saranac Lake.

This large-scale clinic needed to be staffed, so both counties called upon volunteers. Essex County brought in members of its Medical Reserve Corps, a nationwide group of medical professionals established after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to Jim Thomsen, a nurse and coordinator of Essex County’s MRC program. Many members of the MRC have volunteered to help with this historic vaccine rollout.

Essex County’s MRC has grown from about 100 members this past October to 200 now, according to Thomsen. That includes doctors, nurses, paramedics and veterinarians.

“All these volunteers give all this time,” he said, gesturing around the room to the dozens of volunteer staff administering vaccines.

“That’s just how health care providers are,” Strack said. Franklin County continues to recruit more volunteers to add to its volunteer program, which has about 20 people so far.

In less than a month’s time, the health departments, volunteers and residents who were vaccinated last week will do this all over again. NCCC will again host a clinic later this month for second doses.

“This is ending the pandemic,” Thomsen said, standing inside the NCCC gym last week. “This is hope.”

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