During a tour of Salud Medical Center in Woodburn on April 14, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Kevin Heidrick, chief medical officer for the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic stopped to go over the COVID numbers that have been tabulated since the beginning of the pandemic last spring.
"We've diagnosed 2,370 positive patients throughout our Oregon system," Heidrick said. "When you look at the state of Oregon, that's about 1.5% of the total Oregon cases. We've had a 21.6% positivity rate, a very high positivity rate.
"Of those 2,370 positives, 2,071 are people who have identified as Hispanic or Latino, so the disproportionate effect of COVID on the minority population is pretty evident."
"Last I checked, the statewide is about 25% and was as high as 30% during the pandemic," Brown said, "so it's coming down a bit, but not enough."
The brief back and forth was part of a larger hourlong tour conducted by Heidrick and Dr. Antonio Germann, program director at Salud, leading the governor through the Woodburn facility that provides a wide array of medical services from oral, prenatal, behavioral health and, of course, COVID-19 testing and vaccination.
It was Brown's second visit to Woodburn in as many weeks after touring Lincoln Elementary School on April 1 for the first day of hybrid in-person instruction in the Woodburn School District.
The governor's visits have been part of a greater attempt to highlight Oregon's Latino population, particularly in Marion County where Latino residents make up 27% of the population.
But testing and vaccination numbers are lagging behind for Latino residents, who account for one-third of all COVID cases despite accounting for just 13% of the state's total population.
"We're taking a multipronged approach, and that's one of the reasons why I'm here, is that federally qualified health centers like Salud are providing access to care to these historically underserved populations," Brown said "My goal as governor is to make sure that every eligible Oregonian gets a vaccine as quickly as possible, but also we need to make sure that it is equitable, and that our historically underserved populations and communities of color that have been left behind for decades, for centuries, in this country need to get access to these life-saving vaccines."
Brown noted that the vaccination gap is closing, but not fast enough, as the state and medical personnel have taken efforts to reach out to its minority populations through radio, internet and mobile vaccination clinics coming directly to farm workers and door-to-door services.
"We literally take the vaccines to where the families are present," Brown said. " So we are making sure they get vaccines so they can vaccinate their patients, and it's been an incredible success. We're seeing the gap close as a result of that effort, but that's just one of the prongs."
"We are trying to narrow the gap when we talk about equity," Germann said. "I think that the governor's office and Oregon Health Authority has done just a remarkable job making sure resources (are available) and pointing out where we need to focus on equity, and looking where patients and communities of color are most affected, and that often is in community health clinics."
Salud has converted its conference and administrative rooms into vaccination areas where the clinic provides about 100 vaccinations a day during weekdays and between 250 to 350 shots on Saturdays, according to clinic Director Julia Romanelli.
"Everybody's been working a lot of overtime. We've essentially been doing two clinics," Germann said. "We do our normal operations and then having to do our vaccinations also. They've been doing a phenomenal job."
Nearly 40% of Salud's patients are uninsured and 45% are covered by the Oregon Health Plan. About 46% of patients served are migrant and seasonal agricultural workers. About 88% of the center's patients identify as Hispanic or Latino, Latina and Latinx.
Germann noted that where traditional routes of spreading information about the vaccinations through the governor's office and media may bring skepticism, the most effective way to bring vaccinations to the public is through doctor-to-patient relationships and word of mouth.
"You need to have a trusting relationship," Germann said. "Looking at studies, it's usually their primary care provider that can have a big impact. It's family members, it's us just coming to talk to the broader community saying, 'I got the vaccine and this is why I did it'. I think just continuing to voice that will continue making inroads on people who still remain hesitant."
Following a multitier distribution of vaccinations to the public over the first quarter of 2021, Oregon was scheduled to begin providing vaccines to all residents this week.
"I am excited that on April 19 every adult Oregonian will be eligible for a vaccination, and I am asking Oregonians if they haven't gotten their vaccinations already to make a plan and get their vaccines so we can move past the virus," Brown said. "The best way we can get back to normal is to get everyone vaccinated. It will make it easier to hug our loved ones, to go to a movie theater. The more people get vaccinated, the more quickly we can ease safety restrictions that the pandemic has forced upon us."
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