Holistic Pharmacist Dr. Neal Smoller, of the Village Apothecary in Woodstock, has made it his mission to drive all over Ulster County to make sure that the under-served population in the county are given equal access to vaccinations against Covid-19.
Smoller is well aware of access and distribution issues with getting a vaccine shot. He said applause should go to New York State, “for their systems that are in place. They’re dealing with a lot and are not getting a lot of doses at all.”
Smoller said in one recent week he received 700 doses of the Moderna vaccine, all that he needed because no other pharmacy was ready, but the following week he received none.
“All of the obstacles for access that some people are having, like transportation, computer access or even around racial lines as poor areas are not getting these doses, still exist,” he said. “The same 700 doses came into the county except now they are moving to people who have access, who have availability [and] it’s not taking care of the equity problem that’s going on.” He said he is the only pharmacist that is traveling as a way to deal with the inequity issue.
“Upstate it seems I’m the only one that’s gone and done a road show so far,” he said. “I’m an independent pharmacist, with close ties to the community and deep roots and I don’t want our neighborhood to be one that forgets people of color, forgets poor people, forgets people that don’t have computers and since I’m the one getting doses, I’m the one that’s gotta solve the problem. I want to get more doses so I can solve that specific problem.”
Smoller said availability is due, in part, to the “systems at play.”
“The [pharmacy] chains aren’t intentionally blocking anybody but they’re not actively trying to ensure equity; they are not actively concerned with that. What they want is the path of least resistance,” he said.
To counter this “system,” Smoller has reached out to the Ellenville National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP], “to make sure they’ve identified their members who are over 65, who do not use computers and I travel to them so they don’t have to get to Woodstock where the doses are or to get to Kingston for the county clinics. These are huge obstacles for people.”
Smoller said he is not trying to monopolize the supply, “but if 700 doses come to Ulster County could they earmark 200 of them for this special equity project that I, as an independent pharmacist, travel around and try to solve while the rest of the doses go in the more conventional manner?”
Smoller is only hoping to receive an equal portion of weekly doses with a small modification by the state. He is trying to bring attention to the inequity problem that everyone knows is happening.
“It doesn’t have to happen because there are providers ready, willing and able to drive and work hard to solve these problems,” he said.
Smoller suggested partnering with Ulster County to set up a Pod for seniors who do not have transportation or computers, however at the center of this problem is that the county does not have the number of doses that are needed.
Smoller has also reached out to local and state officials seeking their help with this issue, believing a model could be created for all of the counties in New York.
In the next few weeks Smoller expects the county will hit their lowest supply level, due to the misinformation of the previous administration. He believes the state is doing the best they possibly can with the resources they have at hand.
“Right now it’s the senior citizen hunger games where everybody is fighting for doses but I foresee in the near future where there will be a glut of doses and then there won’t be enough practitioners and we’re going to have to move at a fevered pace,” he said. “But at this time when we have to make each dose count, its like you have one match to start a fire and which way is the best way to burn that match to make the most efficient fire for the community.”
Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan said his office has been working with Smoller to provide more vaccines and to make sure that the under served areas of the county receive their fair share of shots.
Ryan said recently the county received 1,900 doses, with 800 of them going to the hospital system for health care workers, 600 allocated to age 65+ seniors in 6 different pharmacies and the remaining 500 went to the county health department to focus on First Responders – fire departments, EMS workers and teachers.
Ryan said although state allocations are limited, “we’re definitely working every angle we can to make sure it’s equitable throughout the county.”
Ryan has seen a difference after the new administration came in, “and stepped things up so I think that’s encouraging for everyone.”
Ulster County Legislator Tom Corcoran [R-Marlborough] believes the county has been doing a good job but the lack of vaccinations in the southern tier of the county is an issue. He said the northern part of the county has been receiving shots, “and I thought the southern tier needed representation, especially the seniors who are eligible under phase II.” Corcoran’s conversations with County Executive Ryan focus on how and when will more shots be provided to the towns of Marlborough, Lloyd, Plattekill and Gardiner.
“They more than understood what I was saying at the county; they were more than willing to help, but with the lack of vaccines it was almost impossible to say yes we’re going to come down to the south and do 1,000 vaccines next week. It just wasn’t happening,” he said.
Corcoran said consideration of using the TOMVAC building as a vaccination center is under consideration.
“My main concern is getting the southern tier taken care of, specifically my Marlborough residents, because we are in phase II of eligibility,” he said. “I am willing to do what it takes to get as many seniors vaccinated that I can in town.”