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How this small town of 16,000 near the US-Canada border has given out 50,000 vaccines

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.” 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 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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