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Online meeting brought together county and state leaders to address the issue.

COURTESY PHOTO: WASHINGTON COUNTY - A graph shows COVID-19 cases in Washington County based on race, ethnicity of residents. A virtual meeting Dec. 29 brought together local, county and state leaders in a discussion of the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to communities of color while allaying fears those communities might have.

"How to Address the Inequities of COVID-19 through Vaccine Distribution to Minority Communities -- A Community Discussion" was the topic of the evening Zoom meeting sponsored by The Muslim Educational Trust of Tigard and The New Portlander Foundation.

The evening's speakers included Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen, Washington County Commissioner Pam Treece and Multnomah County Public Health Administrator Jessica Guernsey,

During opening comments, Wajdi Said, president and co-founder of the Muslim Educational Trust, said the inequities that existed before COVID-19 have been exacerbated during the pandemic.

"Many times marginalized groups are told to wait and that the next time will be our turn," he said. "This has to change. An effective vaccine and distribution process can help integrate immigrant refugees to be proud Americans, to be proud civic leaders, to be proud taxpayers."

Both Sen. Ron Wyden and U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici sent videotaped messages of support for the evening's topic with Wyden saying his goal is to make sure the COVID-19 vaccines are safe, regulated and equitably distributed.

"Now is the time for our community to come together and make sure everyone understands that our priority is make sure everyone can get the vaccine. It's especially important that communities without power and clout … are prioritized for the rollout of the vaccines," he said.

Bonamici said the "pandemic has made it even more clear than ever that our health and economic well-being are deeply connected and it's also laid bare long-standing inequities and systemic racism."

Multnomah County's Jayapal said her county realized early on during the pandemic that COVID-19 would "exacerbate, as others have said before me, all of the existing inequities in our system and that our Black and our brown and immigrant and refugee communities were going to be the most impacted."

But Jayapal said the way the county has structured its response has reflected that recognition. She pointed out that essential workers from communities of color and in refugee communities generally don't have the luxury of working from home and risk a loss of income if they decide to self-quarantine.

Washington County's Treece said while the county's white community makes up 76% of the population, only 32% have contracted the virus.

"The biggest issue we're facing very frankly is our Hispanic, our Latinx community," Treece said. While that group represents only 17% of the county's population, 47% have come down with COVID-19.

Similarly, Washington County's Black community makes up only 3% of its population but 2% have contracted the virus, she pointed out.

"This is not acceptable," said Treece, adding that the county is using numerous strategies to reduce the inequities, including getting the word out about COVID-19 through various Native language posts, social media and more, using $13 million in federal CARES money to accomplish that task.

Oregon Health Authority's Allen said the state deliberately used broad definitions regarding who would receive the vaccines first when it came to health care workers — the first group to be vaccinated — saying it's not only doctors and nurses on the list but those who come in contact with patients as well.

"Our definition includes not only the technicians and the licensed health care providers and professionals and those kinds of (people) but includes housekeeping staff, nutrition staff, people who move patients from one part of a facility to another and, not coincidentally, those people are also much more likely to be people of color working in those positions," said Allen, a Sherwood resident.

Allen said the state also is focusing on vaccinating residents and workers in long-term care facilities — many of those workers who are overrepresented by communities of color and those in lower income brackets — because those facilities represent 40% of the deaths from COVID-19 throughout Oregon.

Like Treece, Veronica Leonard, director of youth, education and wellness for the Latino Network, which serves Clackamas, Washington and Multnomah counties, highlighted how hard COVID-19 has hit the Latino community.

"We are really getting the brunt of the pandemic in our community," she said, pointing out that many in the Latino community are front-line, essential workers. Leonard said it's important that those workers get the vaccine as soon as possible because then they can ensure safety for the broader population.

She also said many communities of color are affected more by COVID-19 because they live in multigenerational households.

During a question and answer part of the program, Oregonian columnist Steve Duin asked Allen if a person who has had COVID-19 should get vaccinated?

"The answer is yes," Allen said.

He said the state has received about 150,000 doses of the vaccine (to treat 75,000 Oregonians since they require two doses) and the ability to vaccinate is ramping up daily, he said.

The peak day so far for administrating vaccinations was Monday when 5,000 doses were administered, a number that he said likely would be raised to 6,000 to 6,500 vaccines once all the data rolls in. Still, he said the second group to be vaccinated — teachers and other education staff — might likely have to wait until February for their COVID-19 shots.

Nafisa Fai, Washington County commissioner-elect, asked Allen whether all Oregon residents would be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

"The state at this point has no plans to require vaccination," Allen said. "The vaccine is not approved in kids."

Allen added, "there could be a point in time where certain employers could require their employees to get vaccinated, and a good example would be people who work in nursing homes."

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