Since mid-January, Potsdam has been welcoming New Yorkers from all corners of the state who travel long distances to get their COVID-19 vaccines.
New York State Team
POTSDAM, N.Y. — Vetia Searcy could get her vaccine. But she had to go to somewhere called Potsdam, New York, to get it.
Searcy had never heard of the place. Scanning through New York’s vaccine portal in February, refreshing the website and hoping to snag an appointment somewhere near her home in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, the name kept coming up as the only location with sporadic open slots.
Searcy, who qualified for the vaccine on Feb. 15 because of her asthma, made some calls to see if she would be allowed receive the shot at the state-run facility at the State University of New York at Potsdam. The answer was yes — as long as she was willing and able to travel.
For two days, she checked constantly. Finally, an appointment opened up in Potsdam again.
“I happened to be online when the spot opened up. I didn’t know how many there were, I just kept refreshing and refreshing until I grabbed one,” she said. “I thought it was worth it to drive up. I immediately felt relieved.”
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Vetia Searcy received her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Potsdam, New York, on Thursday, March 11, 2021. She drove up from her home in New York City to receive the first dose in February when there were no appointments available downstate. (Photo: Georgie Silvarole/New York State Team)
The trip took her more than eight hours — the first two spent on digging her ice-encrusted car out from under the mountain of snow on top of it and another six to drive up to Potsdam.
And her vaccine quest came with a side benefit: It ended up introducing her to New York’s so-called North Country. The snow-covered landscape and quaint small-town charm came as a pleasant surprise, and she now hopes to make a habit of visiting in the future.
“It was fun — it was an adventure for me,” Searcy said on March 11, back in town on her second trip up to Potsdam for shot No. 2. “I think it’s beautiful up here.”
Searcy isn’t the only New Yorker traveling from one end of the state to another to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. Officials for both the village of Potsdam as well as the college have said it’s not uncommon to have out-of-towners making the trek for their vaccines, especially when they can’t get one close to where they live.
Last week, the site hit a major milestone when it surpassed 50,000 vaccinations. For a town with a year-round population of about 16,000 people, that’s significant.
And locals say they’re proud to be part of what everyone hopes is the closing chapter of a grim era in American history — helping to bring COVID-19 to heel, one shot at a time.
The Raquette River flows through Potsdam, St. Lawrence County, on Friday, March 12, 2021. (Photo: Georgie Silvarole/New York State Team)
‘All roads do lead to Potsdam’
The village of Potsdam sits at the northwestern tip of New York state, about 20 miles from the Canadian border.
Between the lively coffee shops, restaurants and stores on the main drag, and an infamous fake-flower garden sprouting from more than a dozen toilets, there’s no shortage of character.
Several main thoroughfares cut through Potsdam, and St. Lawrence County encompasses three other colleges — Clarkson University, SUNY Canton and St. Lawrence University. The town itself has a population of about 16,000, and that number jumps by about 7,400 when the four nearby colleges are in session.
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All these factors made Potsdam an ideal location for a vaccine site. But they’re also great reasons for people who have never experienced the North Country to enjoy the time they spend there, Mayor Reinhold “Ron” Tischler said.
In the past, when people would ask about where Potsdam is, he’d go through a tiresome explanation process: It’s in upstate New York. No, it’s not near Syracuse or Albany. Have you heard of Watertown? No? What about Lake Placid? OK, yeah, it’s 90 miles north of that.
Potsdam Village Mayor Reinhold “Ron” Tischler in his office on Friday, March 12, 2021. (Photo: Georgie Silvarole/New York State Team)
“I say it’s northern New York, but sometimes we call it southern Canada,” Tischler said. “It’s a place to be proud of.”
He describes Potsdam as a hub from which several “spokes” extend: They’re an hour from Ottawa, Canada’s capital city; less than two hours from winter destinations like Whiteface Mountain and Titus Mountain; mere miles from the St. Lawrence River and the Bassmaster tournaments it draws in each summer.
So for those who want to head upstate for the vaccine, there’s certainly plenty of open slots — and a lot of things to do and see while they’re in the area, too.
“It’s true — all roads do lead to Potsdam,” Tischler said. “There’s availability now, even. If people want to travel, you know, a lot of them will.”
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Will Rose, 25, traveled from his home in Manhattan to receive his COVID-19 vaccination at SUNY Potsdam on Thursday, March 11, 2021. (Photo: Georgie Silvarole/New York State Team)
‘If we can provide help, we will’
In mid-January, before other sites popped up around New York, the state contacted SUNY Potsdam and suggested setting up a location on campus.
Within two weeks, the massive site was up and running. Located inside Maxcy Hall, Potsdam’s athletic complex, the site spans the field house’s entire 33,000 square feet of space. Adjacent to the field house, the 43,000-square-foot ice rink is dry, too, instead serving as a makeshift break room for those staffing the vaccine site.
Patients register in advance and are greeted by bold-letter signs and National Guardsmen when they arrive. Go here, sit there, sanitize your hands, have your temperature taken. What’s your name? Your date of birth? Sign here, please.
A state-run COVID-19 vaccination site opened up on the SUNY Potsdam campus in New York in January 2021. In mid-March, the site surpassed 50,000 vaccinations. (Photo: Georgie Silvarole/New York State Team)
In a given day, somewhere between 1,000 to 2,000 people will receive their shots. Hundreds of people keep things running in a variety of capacities, checking patients in or pre-filling syringes or sticking needles into arms or offering congratulations as they hold open the exit door.
So much is happening all at once. But that’s the strangest part — it is so quiet inside.
“It has been remarkably smooth,” said Kristin Esterberg, SUNY Potsdam’s president. “Anytime the community needs us, if we can provide help, we will. And we think that’s part of the mission of a public university.”
Kristin Esterberg, President SUNY Potsdam in St. Lawrence County, in her office on Thursday, March 11, 2021. (Photo: Georgie Silvarole/New York State Team)
For her, one of the greatest perks is hearing the stories of people who’ve made it to Potsdam one way or another for the vaccine — a historic symbol of the beginning of the end of COVID-19.
Like Will Rose, the 25-year-old from the Upper West Side in New York City who made the trek to Potsdam for his vaccine on March 11. Or Steven Morgan, the 30-year-old firefighter who simply drove across town for his on the same day.
And for Vetia Searcy, who drove from one end of the state to a place she’d never heard of to receive a life-changing shot she’ll never forget.
All these people — New Yorkers from all over, in the same room together passing a significant milestone with the end of the pandemic in sight — give her hope.
“I do think this is historic,” Esterberg said. “Our COVID response really does show the importance of the community and the ways in which the community really comes together to try and make sure we all stay healthy, we all stay safe, we’re all looking out for one another. And to do it in this most beautiful setting — it’s really spectacular.”
Follow reporter Georgie Silvarole on Twitter: @gsilvarole
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