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Public Health staff estimated 800 individuals in Phase 1A groups had not received a COVID-19 vaccine as of Monday

COLUMBIA RIVER FIRE AND RESCUE - Public safety personnel in Columbia County were eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in Phase 1A.Limited vaccine supply and inadequate organizational systems are hindering COVID-19 vaccine distribution in Columbia County and beyond.

The state is still in Phase 1A of vaccine distribution, meaning that public safety personnel, healthcare workers, individuals living or working in residential care facilities, and some other high-risk groups are eligible to receive the vaccine.

Columbia County had the lowest vaccination rate of all Oregon counties as of Jan. 26.

At least 1,591 Columbia County residents had received one or both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine by Jan. 26, though counts from the past few days may not be complete yet. Approximately 1,000 of those were vaccinated in the county, according to Columbia County Public Health Director Michael Paul.

Columbia County estimated there were 800 individuals left in the county who were part of the Phase 1A groups but had not yet received the vaccine as of Monday, though that number could include people who live outside Columbia County but work inside the county.

Columbia County Public Health staff have been working to outreach to all agencies that have employees in Phase 1A, but staff don't know for sure if they've reached every agency or individual who is eligible.

Healthcare systems with offices in Columbia County, like Legacy Health and Oregon Health & Science University, receive their own vaccine allocations from the state and can distribute those throughout their offices in Oregon.

"The doses, it appears to me, are going to the health systems" more so than the counties, Paul told county commissioners last week. "But that doesn't mean, to me, that we cannot continue to work with those health systems and request that they send some of their doses, divert them from places like the convention center to the rural health clinics. For instance, Legacy has a brand new urgent care center here in St. Helens, and other urgent care centers are administering vaccines."

In a press release, Paul thanked OHSU, Columbia Health Services and the Scappoose Fire District for providing vaccinations.

"We hope they serve as a model to other rural health providers," Paul said. "We hope their success leads to additional clinics offering vaccinations at convenient times and locations."

The state provided 200 doses to Columbia County last week.

Commissioner Henry Heimuller said that the state "trickling it out to us at 200 a week" isn't acceptable. In response, Paul noted that even 200 was better than originally anticipated.

On Friday, Jan. 15, Paul said, the county was notified that they wouldn't receive any doses for the next week, but 200 doses were "found" after "a lot of back and forth."

Paul and the county commissioners are aiming to streamline the signup process for vaccinations with an online signup.

Providers like Columbia Health Services primarily book appointments over the phone, while large healthcare systems had implemented online scheduling long before the pandemic.

Scheduling vaccination appointments over the phone can be a time-consuming process and slow down distribution.

"I think that this is the way that we can help our local clinical clinic provider, Columbia Health Services, and taking that off their plate, just saying, you know, 'you're going to give the shots. And we'll have the people at your door when you tell us you're ready.'" Paul said.

As of Thursday, Jan. 21, Columbia Health Services had administered 140 of the 300 vaccine doses it had received. Another 70 individuals were scheduled for vaccination on Monday, according to director Sherrie Ford.

Ford said distribution would speed up, as long as the state provides more doses.

"So far we've been going out to adult foster homes and places like that, where it's harder for people to come get their vaccine," Ford said.

"You can only be so efficient when you're going to a home that has 10 people, because so much time is spent getting set up," Ford explained. "But that's something that needed to be done first."

She remarked, "Now, the limiting factor for us is going to be can we get the vaccine?"

School nurses have volunteered to work with CHS, which has sped up the process by allowing CHS staff to focus on the piles of paperwork for distribution and billing insurance, while the volunteer nurses can "actually poke the arms," Ford said.

CHS is billing insurance for individuals who have insurance, and billing the county for any uninsured vaccine recipients.

Paul said that OHSU, a much larger system, has opted not to bill insurance, deciding that the time and effort to handle billing isn't worth the revenue.

The local fire districts formed a group to administer the vaccines to public safety personnel early in the month. Scappoose Fire Chief Jeff Pricher said that 295 of the 445 public safety personnel in the county had received the first dose of their COVID-19 vaccine as of Jan. 22. Pricher said that all public safety personnel have been offered the vaccination and the doses and appointments have been available. That means approximately one-third of the county's public safety personnel have opted to not receive the vaccine at this time.

OHSU Family Medicine in Scappoose received doses from the county's allocation last week in order to vaccinate individuals in Phase 1A over the weekend.

Any individuals in Phase 1A, or any employer with staff in Phase 1A, should contact Columbia County Public Health if they have not already been connected with a provider for a vaccination. Columbia County Public Health can be reached at 503-397-7247.

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