More work to do despite Washington County's high vaccination rate
For weeks, Washington County has enjoyed the highest COVID-19 vaccination rate in Oregon.
As of Friday, June 25, 72.3% of people age 16 and older in Washington County had received at least one dose of a vaccine, with Hood River and Multnomah counties trailing slightly behind, according to data from the Oregon Health Authority.
But county public health officials say it's no time to let up vaccination efforts. They say it's time to work on an even more individualized basis to make vaccines available to those who still haven't gotten them.
"We're not there yet," said Tricia Mortell, public health division manager for the county. "This is still critical. People need to still take caution, we still have (COVID-19) in the community."
She said the county and its partners still have a lot of work to do to raise vaccination rates among the Latino and Black communities, which are at 49.1% and 47.4%, respectively, according to OHA data.
The current rates show progress, albeit slow progress, toward making vaccines available to the hardest to reach people, including those with multiple jobs, tight work schedules and limited transportation, Mortell said.
On May 14, when the county submitted its plan to close gaps in vaccination rates between racial and ethnic groups, vaccination rates among the Latino and Black communities were 41% and 40%, respectively, according to OHA data. (County data at the time showed lower rates among such groups due to a different race categorization method than the state.)
Mortell said reducing barriers to access needs to continue, including efforts to create vaccine events with employers and open clinics during nonwork hours in targeted neighborhoods with low vaccination rates.
Volunteers at Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center have been going door-to-door in communities with low vaccination rates to ask people if they have questions about the vaccines and provide information about upcoming vaccine opportunities, said Kasi Woidyla, spokeswoman for Virginia Garcia.
"I hand them a stack of postcards and they go to apartment complexes and they let them know about a vaccination event happening," Woidyla said.
She said the volunteers work safely and are not there to argue with people who are ardently against getting a vaccine.
Virginia Garcia volunteers are focused on people who are still in need of information about vaccines or simply haven't had time to get a shot, Woidyla said.
Mortell praised the work of community-based groups and cultural organizations who have worked with the county throughout the pandemic to communicate accurate information about vaccines, dispel misinformation and schedule appointments for members.
"I have to thank an incredible public health staff who have been working so hard since the first case in this pandemic," Mortell said. "I also have to say it's partnerships. There are so many people who have been at the table with us."
Groups working with the Asian and Pacific Islander communities have been particularly successful.
The vaccination rates among Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders, American Indian/Alaska Natives and Asians are 79.9%, 71.1% and 68.4%, respectively, OHA data show.
Holden Leung, chief executive of the Asian Health & Service Center, said leaning on the trust his organization built with people over decades through holiday celebrations, weekly community gatherings and assistance with resources has been key to helping people to get vaccinated.
"It's very important to gain the trust of the community before anything happens," Leung said. "That's step 1."
Throughout the pandemic, the organization, which works throughout the Portland metro region, relied on a database of its clients to help support them, he said.
Ahead of the vaccine rollout, workers at the organization were calling people in the 20,000-person database to talk with them about the vaccine, Leung said.
"That way we already know, if the vaccine is available, who is ready to get vaccinated, who is hesitant, who needs further explanation," he said. "It's something that made our approach very efficient."
As the need for support and trust grew during the pandemic, the number of clients the organization serves in Washington County grew by half to about 6,000, Leung said.
It was crucial that Washington County gave the Asian Health & Service Center the ability to register clients for appointments instead of requiring people to do it themselves, Leung said.
As demand dropped, the organization partnered with Washington County for multiple vaccine events targeted at Asian-owned businesses and gathering places, he said, adding that such work will continue.
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