WATERTOWN — Jefferson County has three communities with concerningly low vaccination rates, according to data from New York state, but county Board of Legislators Chairman Scott A. Gray said that’s not the whole story.
On Monday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced the state would be focusing on vaccinating residents in communities in the lowest 10% for their per-capita vaccination rate, or any community with a vaccination rate at or below 36.3%. Three Jefferson County communities fit that description — Evans Mills, LaFargeville and Calcium.
Mr. Gray said that for Evans Mills and Calcium, the issue isn’t that there are too few people vaccinated, it’s that the state doesn’t know about them.
The state is only counting people who are in the New York State Immunization Information System, according to Mr. Gray.
“Anyone vaccinating on the state side, including us, is reporting through the NYSIIS system, and all the efforts on Fort Drum are not recorded in that system,” he said.
The NYSIIS system, which reports information directly back to the state Department of Health, tracks vaccinations by ZIP code, which gives the state a geographic image of where vaccinated people reside. To get the local vaccination rate, they compare the number of vaccinated people to the number of residents in each ZIP code.
Mr. Gray said Fort Drum does share information on vaccinations with the county, but its data does not include the ZIP codes where vaccinated individuals live. That data is also not sent to the DOH, and Mr. Gray said it’s unlikely they will be able to generate a true vaccination rate for any of the affected regions.
“They gave us some very raw data,” he said. “I don’t think we can get that data to be more precise, so it is what it is.”
Jeffrey Hammond, public information officer for the New York state Department of Health, said the state’s tracking system does not track doses administered by federal entities, including the Department of Defense and the Veterans Health Administration. As a result, the state’s vaccine tracker data may differ from the CDC’s, which does include those metrics. The CDC’s vaccination tracking page shows Jefferson County has 60.8% of it’s eligible population vaccinated as of June 9.
“New York state continues to administer vaccines as quickly and equitably as possible, utilizing a vast network of providers statewide in addition to our mass vaccination sites,” Mr. Hammond said. “To date, more than 20 million vaccines have been administered statewide, meaning 69.1% of New Yorkers ages 18 and older have had at least one vaccine dose, according to the CDC.”
Mr. Gray said the ZIP codes where vaccination rates are most impacted by the Fort Drum effect are almost all in the towns of Philadelphia, LeRay and Wilna.
“The Route 11 corridor — the towns that have parts of Fort Drum in their borders,” he said.
Even though those are the areas most impacted by the difference in vaccination reporting structures, Mr. Gray said the issue could be county-wide. Anyone who got vaccinated on Fort Drum, whether they are a soldier, retiree or family member, is not included in the county or state’s vaccination total. Mr. Gray said there are more than 50,000 people in the county eligible to receive vaccinations on Fort Drum.
According to data collected by the Jefferson County Public Health Service, which includes Fort Drum’s data, 63% of Jefferson County’s eligible, 16-and-up population has received at least one dose of a vaccine.
According to New York state’s online COVID-19 vaccine tracker, 53.3% of the county’s eligible population has received at least one dose of a vaccine.
Although Mr. Gray said he’s much more confident in the county’s percentage, even that number isn’t concrete.
“We split Fort Drum’s vaccinations among Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties proportionally, but it’s an estimate, so nobody has a true count for their own county,” he said.
Vaccination rates aren’t the only aspect of Jefferson County’s COVID response that’s been impacted by Fort Drum.
There are no rules that require Fort Drum, or any military base at home or abroad, to share any data on their pandemic response with the surrounding community. Mr. Gray said officials on Fort Drum recognized that the base’s unique integration with the community meant some data had to be shared.
“They did it because the virus is so contagious,” he said. “They are a decentralized base, so their activities, families and children all move in and out of the gate, whether they’re in classrooms or health care facilities or businesses.”
The data that does come from Fort Drum didn’t include location information for where people who tested positive lived, which made tracking positive tests by ZIP code impossible in Jefferson County as well. Mr. Gray said that’s the reason Jefferson County never put together a public-facing map of positive coronavirus cases, like many other counties in New York did.
There is one town on the state’s list of problematic towns in Jefferson County that Mr. Gray said was likely not a result of Fort Drum’s alternative reporting system — LaFargeville.
Mr. Gray said the county collaborated with Carthage Area Hospital and its school-based health clinic at the LaFargeville Central School District to host a clinic in late May. Many people received their first doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine there, but Mr. Gray said he thinks those weren’t included in the data the state used to develop its list of under-vaccinated communities.
On June 18, the county and Carthage Area Hospital will again collaborate to host a second-dose clinic, and Mr. Gray said he’s hoping to get a large number of Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccines for that clinic as well.
On Monday, Gov. Cuomo announced his plans to scale back most coronavirus restrictions, including capacity limitations and social distancing requirements for public spaces, once 70% of the state’s population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. That matches with the goal of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to vaccinate 70% of people nationwide by July 4.
According to Jefferson County’s numbers, the county needs to vaccinate slightly more than 5,000 people to achieve that goal.