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Washington County leads the state in vaccination rate while disparities persist.

COURTESY PHOTO: WASHINGTON COUNTY - A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a Washington County-supported community vaccination event in partnership with Pacific University and Centro Cultural de Washington County.

According to the latest data from the Oregon Health Authority, Washington County leads the state with 80.5% of adults vaccinated, more than 386,000 people.

But communities of color are thought to be lagging behind in vaccination rate compared to white county residents. Data from earlier this summer shows that when 71.3% of white adults in Washington County had received at least one dose, only 58.7% of Latinos had done the same.

Community organizers say concerns about side effects and a lack of trust in government entities are common barriers to the shot.

"We made it clear you don't need a social security number or medical insurance and that the side effects are real but not as big of a risk as getting the virus, " said Daniel Altamirano Hernandez, who oversees a team of five as Centro Cultural's COVID-19 response manager. "These are questions people had and weren't getting answered unless they showed up to a clinic, so we did our best to reach out in Spanish beforehand, and by the end of our conversations, most people wanted to know how they could sign up."

Washington County Public Health spokesperson Mary Sawyers said at one point earlier this year, half of the county's COVID-19 cases were among the Latino population, even though the group accounts for 15% to 17% of the population.

At first, Centro managed a quarantine support program with rent, utility and grocery assistance for those who otherwise couldn't afford to miss work while isolating.

When vaccines first became available, the organization worked as a middleman by answering concerns and then connecting community members with clinics through Washington County and Pacific University.

Over the summer, Centro Cultural turned to holding its own vaccine clinics connected with events like a school supply drive or a youth block party, once the shots were approved for those 12 and up.

Centro was set to partner with Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center on a vaccination clinic to coincide with the celebration of Mexican Independence Day in Hillsboro's Shute Park this Saturday, Sept. 18, although that event was canceled.

"I think at this point, we know for those who have not been vaccinated yet, the relationship and trust of both who is offering and promoting the vaccine really matters," said Tricia Brand, chief diversity officer at Portland Community College. "Our students and staff are part of the community, and we've found through them and their word of mouth we can play a role."

Both PCC, which also works with Virginia Garcia, and Centro offer gift cards starting at $50 as incentives. Brand said PCC is planning to hold vaccine clinics every three weeks at both its Willow Creek Center in Hillsboro and Southeast Campus on 82nd Avenue in Portland, where the college has already given out 400 shots at two events.

In addition to Centro and PCC, Virginia Garcia's mobile vaccination clinic can take the vaccine to anywhere rates are low.

"We work with the county and the state to identify communities where there is a high unvaccinated rate, and we take out mobile unit and make sure we're there," Virginia Garcia communications director Kasi Woidyla said. "We're stopping by a middle school next week. We've been (at) church parking lots and parks at odd hours. Anything to make it as convenient as possible."

Hernandez said Centro has given out roughly 200 shots at its own clinics. It's helped more people get vaccinated by directing them to other providers and events, too.

"We have to be creative and try new approaches to meet people where they're at, one by one, on an individual basis," Hernandez said. "Obviously, we need to try something other than the status quo, because that's not working for all of us."

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