BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — Pharmacies are playing an instrumental role in New York’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout. It’s especially true in rural counties, where many residents are older and can’t travel long distances to larger sites.
Bartle’s Pharmacy in Oxford has been around for 60 years. It’s one of two pharmacies in Chenango County offering COVID-19 vaccines.
To date, Bartle’s has vaccinated close to 5,000 people. Owner Heather Ferrarese said it’s only possible thanks to a partnership with the Oxford Fire Station.
“We’ve really pulled together to vaccinate that many people that we outgrew our space at the pharmacy,” Ferrarese said. “Without collaborative efforts from the community, we would never have been able to pull this off.”
The fire station hosts the pharmacy’s first-dose vaccine clinic on Wednesdays and Fridays, staffed by a crew of community volunteers and pharmacy employees.
Greg Ross has volunteered with the Oxford Fire Station for 55 years. He said helping at the clinic is also an opportunity to see other firefighters, neighbors and friends he had not seen because of the pandemic.
“I was tired of being locked up for a year,” Ross said. “I got to see people, talk to people and it was just good to get out.”
Oxford is a small town, with just under 4,000 residents. People from Cooperstown, Manlius and parts of downstate New York received their vaccine at the fire station clinic, but many of those who go or volunteer there are local.
Tom Holmes, for example, is a retired family doctor who practiced in Norwich for 30 years who stepped up to vaccinate people at the clinic. Decades ago, he was the family doctor for Fire Chief Ron Martin, who coordinated the vaccination site with Bartle’s.
“It really, truly, is a Norman Rockwell experience,” said Ferrarese, who grew up in Oxford and now raises her daughter there. “We have people that are parents of high school classmates and friends that are here volunteering as well. It’s truly a community effort.”
Some families that went to get the vaccine made a day of it, stopping at the clinic with plans for lunch in town afterward. Sarah Kocich, who lives with her father in Greene, drove him to get his first dose of the Moderna vaccine at the fire station last week—their first outing in over a year.
Her father had booked an appointment at the state-run site in Johnson City for May, but he is 71 and at a higher risk of serious illness. He never contracted COVID-19, but Kocich said they went through a few scares.
She said she is happy her dad was able to get the vaccine, especially because of her exposure to customers at Lippy’s Bar and Grill, where she works in Greene. Since she is in a public-facing job, Kocich said she worries about bringing the virus home.
“It’s good to know communities get together and can take care of some of these people, because I worried about him for a while,” Kocich said.
Bartle’s has long been a part of the Chenango County community, with many customers coming into the pharmacy over generations, Ferrarese said. The fact that the store is local and family-owned, she added, allows the pharmacy staff to be more nimble in how they distribute the doses.
“We don’t have to seek approval to change our process,” Ferrarese explained. “If something’s not working we look at each other and say, ‘Okay, what can we do differently to improve this process? How do we make this work?’”
As of this week, New York pharmacies can vaccinate people over the age of 50, teachers and those with certain underlying health conditions. But even though eligibility is expanding, Ferrarese said she is still concerned about access to the vaccination sites.
“Not necessarily that we’ll run out of people to vaccinate, but just the ability for people to get to us will become increasingly more difficult,” she said.
Leonard Law might have been one of those hard-to-reach residents, if it wasn’t for his daughter, Carly. Since Law doesn’t have a computer or an email—which is often required when signing up for a vaccine—she helped him book an afternoon appointment that same morning.
Ferrarese said Bartle’s is partnering with local news stations to spread information about available appointments since many older and remote residents don’t have social media. Law, 62, said he found out about the pharmacy’s clinic on the news, and called Carly for help. She reached out to the pharmacy and rode with him and his dog to the appointment for “moral support.”
Law is diabetic, which is one of the qualifying health conditions listed by the New York State Department of Health. Before he got a slot at the fire station clinic last week, he was on the waiting list at Chenango Memorial Hospital for nearly a month. Carly helped him book that appointment, too, since Law doesn’t have internet or a landline. He has a cell phone—an old flip phone—but service in rural Chenango County, where he lives, is spotty.
“I got a spot in my window where this cell phone will work and it’ll ring but I can’t answer it, but I’ll get a text and it might take three minutes,” Law said. “Got to send it three times, but it’ll come and I can communicate.”
Law and his daughter check in with each other every morning and afternoon. They agreed it would be easier if he had a landline, but that is not an expense he is ready to add.
“That’s another $150, $160 or $180 dollars a month I don’t need to spend,” Law said.
Ferrarese with the pharmacy is compiling a list of community members without phones or internet who would need help signing up. Volunteers will then use the pharmacy’s online scheduling tool to sign up residents who do not have internet.
For now, the clinic is encouraging people to be “COVID angels” and help those around them get an appointment.
Still, Ferrarese is worried about those who are isolated, without transportation and aren’t able to get to a vaccination site. To fill the gap, Bartle’s is exploring alternatives to the fire station clinic, like a mobile vaccination site.
However they decide to do it, Ferrarese is certain it will take a village.