It is almost exactly a year ago that a Covid vaccination drive got underway at High Plains Community Center. Organized by the town’s own Health Department, and staffed with volunteer medical personnel and support staff, the clinic was among the first in the state to make the vaccine widely available to the residents of this town. The hope was — and still is — that the vaccine would help get a grip on the pandemic and eventually eradicate the virus that had caused so many deaths and wreaked havoc with economies all over the world.
And during the summer it did seem like things were returning to almost normal. Outdoor festivals took place. In September, kids returned to school. But by late summer the Delta variant sent people back into quarantine and after the holidays positive cases spiked. By the end of December, Orange recorded 198 positive cases. After the long New Year’s weekend, the Orange Middle School posted 32 positive cases; at the elementary schools a total of 46.
The spike came somewhat as a surprise, even for the medical community. “It was more than anticipated, higher even than last year,” said Orange Health Director Dr. Amir Mohammad in a phone conversation.
“We’re trying our best to keep the schools open,” Dr. Mohammad said. As opposed to the first year of the pandemic, this is not a disease of the elderly. “There are positives in all age groups,” he said. In fact, the local nursing homes that initially were struggling with a relatively high mortality rate, have not recorded a single death from Covid as of late.
Dr. Mohammad credits the vaccine effort with contributing to that success. While some 80% of Orange residents are fully vaccinated, the elderly are almost fully vaccinated, he said. He and all the other volunteers had worked in conjunction with the Senior Center and the OVNA nurse to bring the vaccine to those who are homebound or couldn’t attend the clinics.
Last fall, Dr. Muhammad asked the town leaders for funds to revive the clinics, for the purpose of pandemic mitigation, and in particular, for continued vaccination. In December, the Board of Finance, somewhat reluctantly, allocated $25,000 for a three-month pilot, financed by the American Rescue Plan Act. The money would allow Dr. Mohammad to hire a nurse to conduct a once-a-week clinic. Finance board Vice Chairman Jim Leahy asked the health director to report back to the board in March, and let them know how the money was spent, and whether there was a need.
Leahy expressed doubt, given that vaccines nowadays are available at many locales, including pharmacies. He also wanted to make sure that the service would benefit Orange residents, rather than people from other towns. He criticized the fact that the Town of Orange ended up footing the bill for some of the vaccines last spring, because the crew didn’t record the insurance information.
Dr. Mohammad maintained that the Department of Health at the time did not require any insurance information from those signing up for the vaccine. In fact, there was no code for the brand-new vaccine. That is why the vaccine was administered through public health entities, not for-profit hospitals, which entered the vaccination effort a month or two later.
Mohammad assured Leahy that his focus is on Orange residents, but he said, “if you have a visitor who needs a vaccine, I will give it to him. Vaccinations are the only effective means to protect the community,” he told the Board of Finance. And on those days when there are no requests for vaccines, they can do contact tracing and other data collection, he said. The state Department of Public Health requires local health districts to engage in disease surveillance, contact tracing and record keeping, in addition to health intervention and education.
“This thing is not going away,” Mohammad said of the virus.
In the meantime, the town had received from the state 1,350 Corona virus test kits and N95 masks. On January 6 — Epiphany, incidentally, the day when Christians remember the three Wisemen bringing gifts to the Baby Jesus in Bethlehem — members of the Orange CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) team distributed the kits to Orange residents at the far side of the fairgrounds.
The line of cars stretched for a good mile or two up and down Orange Center Road, all the way around the fairgrounds to the northern side of the exhibit halls, where members of the Orange CERT stood at the ready, armed with Covid test kits and N95 masks. The goal was to hand over one kit every 5 seconds. By the time the first hour had passed, they had handed out 795 kits.
By Bettina Thiel – Orange Town News Correspondent