SARATOGA SPRINGS — A mass vaccine city site. A central online county information site. The creation of and the funding of a COVID Response support staff.
Amid the rapid flux of ever-evolving information related to COVID-19 and to vaccinations, the city and the county made strides this week to provide accessible information to the public as well as solidify plans for the dispensing of vaccines – in preparation for that time when vaccines become more readily available.
First up, the Saratoga Springs City Center was this week approved as a mass COVID-19 vaccine site. The county lease of the site will immediately kick in when “sufficient vaccine doses” are delivered to the county by the state. That sufficient quantity determination will be made by newly appointed county Health Commissioner, Dr. Daniel Kuhle.
“In general, we are notified about 24 hours before we receive vaccines about how many we can expect to get,” says Tara Gaston, Saratoga Springs city Supervisor and newly named as chair of the county’s Health and Social Services Committee. “I don’t anticipate that it’s going to be thousands within the next couple of weeks, but the goal is to be ready if that happens. Under the current state guidance, once we have the vaccines, we must use them within seven days. We have to be ready and able to move as quickly as possible.”
The Saratoga County Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to the resolution regarding the City Center, which was introduced by Gaston.
“The idea is that it will be in the main hall. We have to work out the layout, but I envision temperature stations before people come in. Then you come in, check in at the table, get your shot and then you have to wait your 15 minutes or half-hour depending on whether you have allergies or not,” said Ryan McMahon, executive director and president at the City Center.
“It’s a month-to-month lease where they can turn it on for a month, turn it off for a month. I don’t think anyone thinks we’re going to (immediately) get enough vaccines next week. Part of this is the county’s ability to prepare. This way they can come in, we can set the room up, establish how they want it, get lines running for their computers and get all the infrastructure ready so that if they find out, say, on a Friday night they’re getting the vaccines, then we can be open on Saturday morning,” McMahon said. “We know how to move people through a space, particularly this space very well, so we’re going to advise and collaborate on a plan about how to physically do it, but it’s their show.”
The lease of the space at the City Center was authorized at a cost up to just over $49,000 per month. “We want to help in any way we can. In a normal year I would just eat the cost of this, but right now we can’t take on an additional expense. We have shut down operations for the most part - we don’t even have the HVAC systems on, and we’re barely surviving,” said McMahon, explaining the incremental cost to the county is to get everything back up and running, from the HVAC systems to the cleaning staff – whom were laid off.
A second resolution introduced by Gaston – also receiving unanimous support by the county Board of Supervisors will see the creation of temporary COVID Response Support Personnel, and a COVID Response Coordinator, who will assist the public health department in response to the pandemic. Those positions will earn a base salary of $22/hour and $25/hour, respectively, and will be filled “as needed.” The county set aside approximately $183,000 from its fund balance to fulfill those wage needs.
The county will also be upgrading its COVID-19 web dashboard to use state data methodology, in a mission to be less confusing and more accessible. The county recently adjusted the main page of its website to provide immediate access to COVID-related information.
“This is a change. Any information we get is going to be on the front page of our website in a red box, and it will change as we get more information,” Gaston said. The page includes official links to vaccination registrations, finding current test sites and other COVID-19 resources for individuals and families. The site may be accessed at: www.saratogacountyny.gov.
As of this week, nearly 3.5% of the county’s approximate 230,000 county residents had tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the epidemic, and about 6.5% of the population has been at least partially vaccinated.
“In the city of Saratoga Springs, we have 540 active cases,” city Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton told the council at its Jan. 19 meeting. “The good news is the 7-day rolling average for positivity rates has dropped (in the county) from 11.3% to 8.8% - which is terrific. However, our hospitalizations have almost doubled in the last ten days; currently we have 106 people hospitalized as opposed to 51 ten days ago. This is representative of the lagging nature of these metrics, of when people get sick and then when they need to get hospitalized.”
In the greater eight-county Capital Region of which Saratoga is a part, hospitalizations – with 553 COVID patients - hit an all-time high, and 91 of those patients are in the ICU. New York State is separated into 10 different regions, and the Capital Region has the fewest percentage of hospital beds (25%) and ICU beds (19%) available of all regions statewide, according to the NYS DOH.
“There are not nearly enough vaccines to get as many people vaccinated as we want to,” Dalton added. “We get a tiny amount every week and I know people are frustrated getting access to appointments and having to travel very far – to Plattsburg and Utica. We know that and we are working on it. This is an imperfect system.”
Gaston expressed similar frustration. “New York State has provided directives to anyone who has access to vaccinate individuals. That tells us who we are allowed to vaccinate; just because you have been deemed eligible by the state does not mean that you can get vaccinated at your health department, or at a pharmacy,” Gaston said.
“Medical workers are required to be vaccinated by hospitals. Seniors are required to be vaccinated by pharmacies. And our local health department – Saratoga County Public Health Services - can only vaccinate people who fall into a number of essential worker groups that includes police, fire, teachers, front-facing grocery store workers. If you are a senior and you want a vaccine from our local public health services – we cannot do this at this time.”
Deviating from the governor’s directives can result in severe fines and penalties, Gaston added. “We are working as a county and with other counties to change this – to allow us to use those plans to keep people as safe as possible as quickly as possible, and I think it’s important people know we share the frustration. We all have to be patient but unfortunately we are restricted by these mandates which are not reflective of the long-standing work the public health department has done in the area of vaccinations.”
In addition to the naming of the Saratoga Springs City Center as a mass vaccination site, more than one dozen other smaller, unnamed venues have been evaluated and approved for providing vaccinations across the county and Gaston said among the county’s other coordinated plans - “going into homes, going into shelters, delivering vaccines directly to seniors” – are pending the governor’s lifting of existing directives prohibiting those plans from being enacted.