Washington County Public Health and local healthcare providers plan to increase vaccine clinics and events targeted at specific groups and communities to address ongoing racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19 vaccination rates.
The move comes as officials plan to close the region's mass vaccination sites in June and most Oregon counties, including Washington County, experience declining vaccine demand.
"We're shifting to a more local approach," said Mary Sawyers, a spokesperson for Washington County Public Health. "The community clinics are not filling as fast as they were."
On Friday, May 14, Washington County public health officials submitted a plan to the Oregon Health Authority outlining how the county plans to close gaps in vaccination rates between racial and ethnic groups.
Last week, Gov. Kate Brown announced that counties that vaccinate 65% of residents 16 and over and submit plans for how to close such gaps will be eligible to move to the state's "lower risk" category of COVID-19 restrictions starting Friday, May 21.
As of Monday, May 17, 64.9% of Washington County residents have received at least one dose of a vaccine, OHA data shows.
Sawyers said the county will likely move to "lower risk" on Friday.
Vaccination rates are lower in zip codes in the western part of the county, particularly in more rural areas, according to state data.
Areas of Beaverton, Tigard, Tualatin, and unincorporated Washington County around West Slope, Raleigh Hills and West Haven-Sylvan have the highest vaccination rates. North Plains also stands out among smaller Washington County cities, with its high vaccination rate.
By contrast, rural areas west of Banks and Forest Grove and south to Gaston have among the lowest vaccination rates in the county.
Additionally, vaccination rates among Black and Hispanic residents show disparities when compared to rates for white, Asian, Pacific Islander and American Indian residents.
About 30% of Black and Hispanic residents have received vaccinations, while 45% and 47% of white and Asian residents have been vaccinated, respectively, county data shows. Pacific Islanders have the highest rate of vaccinations, with 52% receiving doses. American Indians have a vaccination rate of 43%.
Mistrust of a government vaccination program caused by the impact of "hundreds of years of historic and systemic racism" is one factor contributing to racial and ethnic disparities, county officials said in their plan sent to the state Friday.
According to county officials, other factors include: communities of color not being contained within the first groups eligible in Oregon to receive the vaccine; barriers in transportation to mass vaccination sites and the inability to take time off work for shift workers; and the fact that at least initially, vaccine appointment scheduling systems were only available online and in English.
"The big approach from everybody now is taking the vaccine to where people are," Sawyers said.
County officials plan to expand vaccine events at community clinics to reduce transportation barriers and dispel vaccine hesitancy among people of color and white people living in rural areas.
The county has already partnered with community-based organizations and held 29 clinics, delivering 12,000 doses at locations close by where target demographics live on days when people don't typically work, Sawyers said.
County officials have gotten commitments to hold additional clinics with 19 other community organizations, such as Adelante Mujeres, Center for African Immigrants and Refugees Organization, and the Urban League of Portland.
The county also plans to lean on a partnership with its largest federally qualified healthcare provider, Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, to close gaps in vaccination rates.
Since vaccines have been available, Virginia Garcia has been targeting low-income and marginalized groups with free community vaccination events at its clinics in Washington and Yamhill counties.
As an added incentive, Virginia Garcia offered free tacos at an event at its Cornelius Wellness Center on Saturday, May 15.
"At this point, we have gotten to all the people who want the vaccine, now we are looking at people who are either a little hesitant or are just busy," said Kasi Woidyla, a spokesperson for Virginia Garcia.
Both Washington County and Virginia Garcia have been partnering with community groups to produce information that dispels misinformation about vaccines in accessible ways.
In early April, Virginia Garcia's Covid Response (CoRe) Team held its first mobile clinic vaccination event. The events have continued weekly, partnering with employers, including those who house seasonal or migrant farmworkers, to reduce barriers for working people, said Misty Downey, CoRe Team program manager.
Downey says Virginia Garcia's trusted relationship with the communities it serves has been key, as people continue to report hesitancy due to misinformation about the vaccine.
She added that having multilingual staff onsite has been crucial because sometimes people show up to their appointment but need help filling out paperwork in English or want to ask questions in their primary language.
The programs have vaccinated 33,000 people so far, Woidyla said.
The CoRe Team is now planning pop-up vaccination events targeted at specific neighborhoods where data show low vaccination rates, Downey said.
"We're not registering people in advance. We don't know who's going to show up or not," Downey said. "We're doing really on-the-spot, trying to reach people who may be in the area walking by. We haven't done it yet, so we're not quite sure what to expect, but we anticipate possibly even knocking on doors in the neighborhood to let folks know that we're out there."
The CoRe Team's first pop-up event will be from 2 to 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 18, at Elmonica Elementary School in Beaverton. Virginia Garcia has been promoting the event through school-based health centers and community organizations, Woidyla said.
Downey said the CoRe Team will adjust how it operates for future pop-up events using what officials learn from the first one.
She said people are unsure what the impact will be of the closures of mass vaccination sites in the region, adding that Virginia Garcia may want to scale up such events depending on demand.
Washington County is holding another clinic for people 18 and older Saturday, May 22, at the Hillsboro Senior Center. Visit the county's website for other vaccine information.
People can view upcoming Virginia Garcia vaccination events on the organization's website.
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