It was a whirlwind week for Dr. Neal Smoller, pharmacist and proprietor of Village Apothecary in Woodstock. He administered the first of two Covid-19 vaccine doses to 120 Woodstock-area residents at a quickly assembled clinic at the Mescal Hornbeck Community Center on Rock City Road.
Like providers across the state, Smoller scrambled on January 10 to file his request for the doses he thought could vaccinate the most at-risk members of the population at one time and that he could administer within a week.
He requested 3000. He got the news the afternoon of January 11 that 100 doses of Moderna were on the way.
It was a start.
“Okay, folks. We do have doses coming!” Smoller posted on Facebook. Through coordination with Town Supervisor Bill McKenna, Smoller quickly arranged for a clinic at the community center for January 13. Future Woodstock clinics will be at that same location.
With so many people wanting to get vaccinated and so few shots, how could he make the best out of the situation? Smoller had a short list of customers who were most at-risk and who he wanted to make sure got a chance at the vaccine.
“We called twelve people, and that took three hours,” he said. He needed a better system.
Smoller hastily put together a website where people provided information and picked a time slot. As long as someone met the age requirement — the initial focus was 75-years-plus — and found a time before the schedule filled up, they got an appointment.
The appointments were filled in two hours. The calls still came flooding into the pharmacy.
Hundreds of calls
“I want people to know how tremendously resource-intensive this process is,” said Smoller. “We’re getting hundreds of calls. People are still kind of pushing through and asking the same questions.”
It would be a great help to practitioners if people would read about the process and what’s in the vaccine. The information is in the Emergency Use Authorization. “If you just read that, it’s like ten minutes,” he said. A link to that information is available at drnealsmoller.com/vax.
Smoller had envisioned working with McKenna and Saugerties Supervisor Fred Costello to provide mass vaccination clinics. “I really think this is a public-health crisis and it should be a public-health initiative,” he said.
While the state and county health departments are setting up clinics with large vaccination capacities, Smoller thinks the local pharmacies are shouldering the largest burden.
Smoller advises patience
Smoller’s advice is to be patient, and eventually everyone will get the vaccine.
“Life isn’t going to change for you. You’re still going to wear masks,” he said. “It buys peace of mind. We kind of keep going, and eventually people will get the vaccine.”
Smoller said he hadn’t expecting vaccine doses until at least February. “It’s a miracle I got the vaccine in my arm, and I can distribute it,” he said.
Smoller gives a lot of credit to the state and county health departments. “It’s amazing how well this system works,” he said. “While I’d love to have more doses to give, that blame falls more the the feds. New York is on it. It’s an easy process, quick communication, and lots of training.”
He said his experience with the Ulster County Department of Health has been similar. “It’s weird, because we go about our lives without really paying attention to DOH or just thinking they’re another government bureaucracy, but in fact we have one of the best DOHs in the country.”
Smoller is hoping he’ll get more vaccine doses in future weekly distributions. Village Apothecary received ten vials with each guaranteed to contain ten doses. Some health professionals were able to reliably get eleven does per vial. Through the use of a specific syringe that has less unusable space, Smoller said he had been able to recover two extra doses, or twelve per vial. With those extra doses, he vaccinated 120 people instead of the planned 100.
It wouldn’t be Woodstock without some kind of kerfuffle. The Woodstock Apothecary’s first Covid vaccine clinic was no different. Some people took to Facebook to allege that Smoller will only give the vaccine to his customers. They pointed to verbiage on his website.
On January 15, Smoller received a phone call from the state Department of Health about the complaint. Smoller denied the allegation, and said he was merely prioritizing people in his care. He noted that a great number of people who received the vaccine at his first clinic were not his customers.
The DOH reminded him that he had to make the vaccine available on a first-come basis. He has changed the language on his website.
“I’m really excited to be able to immunize as many people as possible,” he said. “Like every other private practice in the country, we’re tasked with caring for the highest risks in our charge. I’m prioritizing them, but have welcomed non-customers to sign up with us.”
Signup only available online
Smoller said that he was ready to help as many people in the community as possible. He looks forward to the time when planning for mass-vaccination clinics in Woodstock and Saugerties will come to fruition.
Anyone can sign up at drnealsmoller.com/vax to receive text or email alerts as soon as more doses become available. A regularly updated recording provides updates to those who call the pharmacy about the vaccine. Smoller implores people not to ask questions over the phone. Signup is only available online.
Currently, signup is limited to those 65 and older who haven’t received their first of two doses.
Another clinic will be scheduled when more vaccine is available. It’s important to schedule an appointment on the website. Smoller urges those who cannot sign up online find a friend or family member to sign up on their behalf.
“I cannot stress how being able to provide these vaccination is the absolute pleasure of my professional career,” Smoller said.