Just as the budding flowers and brighter skies of mid-March hint that spring is around the corner, the slow but steadily increasing supply of the COVID vaccine signals the country rounding a corner in the now year-long battle against the coronavirus.
According to New York’s COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker, as of 11 a.m. Friday, March 12, Chenango County had administered 9,240 first doses and 4,780 second doses; Delaware County had given out 7,919 first doses and 3,165 second doses; Otsego County had distributed 14,282 first doses and 7,754 second doses; and Schoharie County had administered 5,423 first doses and 2,674 second doses.
“Things have still been really busy here,” Otsego County Public Health Director Heidi Bond said.
Aside from recent signs of a slight uptick in cases, the county’s COVID caseload has largely been on the decline since the post-holiday surge, Bond said, attributing the downward trend to the increasing availability of the vaccine.
“Even though we’re a year out, I don’t want everybody to get too comfortable,” she said. “We still have a long way to go.”
Among the greatest difficulties of the past year, Bond said, are the long hours required of her and her colleagues, as well as “the frustration of not being able to do as much as we know we should be able to do.”
“We’ve put in a lot of hard work in the past, but nobody ever sees it because it’s kind of behind the scenes,” Bond said. “Now, people do recognize the work that’s being done.”
In a March 11 speech, President Joe Biden directed states to make all U.S. adults eligible for the vaccine by May 1.
“I think it’s doable,” Bond said. “The SUNY Oneonta state site coming to the area should help the community a lot.”
“My goal, by June, is to have enough vaccines in everybody’s arms that we can kind of relax some of the restrictions and start to get back to normal,” she continued. “I’ve been reassured that the vaccine supply is going to start to pick up within the next few weeks.”
In Chenango County, a small, family-owned pharmacy in Oxford was one of the first facilities to administer vaccines.
“Bartle’s Pharmacy has really taken up the torch from the beginning of the pandemic,” Chenango County Environmental Health Director Isaiah Sutton said. “We don’t give a Public Health award, but if we did, it would go to them. They go above and beyond at every turn.”
“We started offering COVID testing in May, very early on in the pandemic, and once we saw the need for testing, the next logical step was the vaccine,” said Heather Bartle, whose family owns Bartle’s Pharmacy, an Oxford institution since 1963. “Once it was available, we knew there would be a huge demand.”
The pharmacy started filing its credentials to administer the vaccine in September, months before the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines hit the market, Bartle said. To date, the pharmacy has administered around 4,000 doses in a clinic set up at the Oxford Fire Department.
“We’re all in the same game,” said Oxford Fire Chief Ron Martin. “It’s a collaborative effort between community members and organizations — this is what we do. All we want to do is help. That’s what we do best. It was a perfect match.”
Members of the Bartle’s Brigade — a rotating cast of retired Public Health nurses, physicians, pharmacy staff, medical interns and professors — volunteer hours of their time to administer hundreds of vaccines every Wednesday and Friday at the fire station, as members of the fire department usher recipients from sign-in to shot-seat.
“It’s almost like a cruise ship,” Martin said. “It’s a well-oiled machine.”
“It’s just a culmination of people who really care about their community coming together to make it happen,” Bartle said. “Some staff really wanted to be hands-on with the process, while some staff felt more comfortable hanging out and holding down the fort here. We all had full-time jobs beforehand, so this has just added to the workload.”
“I’m most proud of these guys stepping up to the plate from the beginning, when nobody really knew what was happening or what COVID was, they worked through it,” Bartle continued. “We didn’t know what we were dealing with and none of them complained. They came to work every day and did anything and everything ever asked of them without any complaints.”
“They’ve supported us throughout the years. The least we can do is support them,” Martin said. “They’re volunteering their time, we’re volunteering our time — it’s all for the betterment of the community. A small hometown pharmacy, small hometown fire department, working hand in hand — what more can you ask for?”
“It’s united a lot of the membership again,” he added. “Some of the older members we have that might not be able to dedicate time to the calls, they’re loving this. They’re helping out, doing whatever they can. It makes me, as a chief, feel good.”
Asked what she looks forward to most once fully immunized, 73-year-old Sidney Center resident Janis Ewain said without hesitation, “seeing my family.”
Clad in a hot pink shirt boldly emblazoned “Blessed with the best grandkids” — eight of them — and wearing a mask reading, “It is well with my soul,” Ewain received her first dose of the Moderna vaccine recently.
“Just the sense of feeling safe — it’s a weight off your shoulders,” Ewain said. “I’m still going to wear my mask, though.”
Jane and Jim Porter, who traveled to Oxford to get their vaccines together, said they, too, couldn’t wait to reunite with family.
The Porters said they’ve felt the emptiness of their Gilbertsville home throughout the past year in the absence of their children and grandchildren regularly passing through.
A Christmas gift exchange in a parking lot was the closest they’ve gotten to a normal visit, Jim said.
“I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting,” Jane said. “I just can’t wait to hug them all.”
Reflecting on the past 12 months, Bond said the pandemic has brought numerous opportunities for growth and self-reflection.
“I learned how strong I am in my position,” she said. “I learned how to just let things roll off my shoulders when I can’t control them. You just keep forging forward to do the things you need to do.”
“I’ve been amazed by the work my staff has shown me they can put in the past year,” Bond continued. “There’s been an outpouring of overwhelming support from the community.”
More local residents have called in to volunteer their services distributing the vaccine than there are opportunities to help, Bond said. “It gives you a good feeling to watch the community come together.”
“I just can’t say enough about this community,” Bartle said. “We’re blessed to live in a community that really cares about each other.”