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Woodburn Ambulance receives a piece of Marion County's allotment for front-line COVID-19 efforts

COURTESY PHOTO: MARION COUNTY - School teacher Gerald Turner of Salem told the Marion County Board of Commissioners Wednesday, Aug. 25, that they need to "stop playing politics and posturing, and start taking actionable steps," to combat the speading pandemic.Woodburn Ambulance is among a handful of entities that will receive fortified resources from Marion County as part of the region's ongoing battle in combating COVID-19.

On Wednesday, Aug. 25, Marion County Board of Commissioners approved an amendment to contract services with Woodburn Ambulance, adding $150,000 for services and bringing the contract total to $300,000 to provide COVID-19 outreach services, including door-to-door vaccine administration and transportation to vaccine sites for vulnerable individuals through Dec. 31.

With the same aim, the county also augmented its contract with Flack Northwest Corporation by $125,000, increasing it to $275,000.

The county added $265,000 to its contract with Interface Network Inc. for a total of $425,200, and it approved a $200,000 contract with Mano a Mano Family Center designated for vaccination outreach services to vulnerable populations.

Additionally, the county approved $375,750 for contract services with IZO Public Relations and Marketing to expand COVID-19 communication services by informing, educating and encouraging the Latino community to obtain vaccinations.

Marion County Health and Human Services Administrator Ryan Matthews said the contracts are intended to overcome vaccine hesitancy and provide people with the information necessary to make informed decisions. The actions come as county and statewide COVID-19 infection numbers have been increasing since early July — primarily among the non-vaccinated population and largely fueled by the delta variant.

"All five of these contracts are in response to the initial funding that we received from the State of Oregon to address vaccine inequity that was earmarked across the state, and this was sort of Marion County's response to that," Matthews said. "So, our public health team, along with partners we've worked with throughout the pandemic, worked on the vaccine equity plan that was submitted to the state and approved.COURTESY PHOTO: MARION COUNTY - Marion County Health and Human Services Administrator Ryan Matthews explains to the county board of commissioners contract amendments recommended to ratchet up efforts for COVID-19 vaccinations Wednesday, Aug. 24. Marion County reached a record number of 464 cases the previous day.

"These five contracts and these strategies were outlined within that plan, and something that we think can be an effective way to get at underserved populations that have, for various reasons, had inequities in terms of distributions and access to the vaccine."

Timely emphasis

The importance of that outreach was underscored earlier in the BOC meeting with Marion County Public Health Director Katrina Rothenberger's report.

"We are experiencing a surge currently," Rothenberger said of COVID-19, citing 2,035 cases in the two-week period between Aug. 8 and Aug. 21. "Cases have been increasing steadily since the beginning of July."

The county has seen an average of 252 cases per day throughout the pandemic, but Aug. 24, the day before the meeting, the county experienced its largest number with 464 cases, surpassing another recent high mark in the county of 363 recorded on Aug. 17.

Rothenberger shared hospitalization numbers from that morning, provided through the Oregon Health Authority. Of the 97 intensive care unit beds available in Region 2 (Marion, Polk, Yamhill, Linn, Benton and Lincoln counties), 88 were occupied, while of the 656 of the 702 non-ICU beds were occupied.

Region 2 had 153 COVID-19 related hospitalizations as of that morning; Salem Health reported 94 COVID-19 patients, of which 80 were unvaccinated.

"What we want to really drive home today is the importance of vaccinations, and also when the booster shots become available on Sept. 20 to please get a booster shot as well," Rothenberger said. 

She noted that about 66.6 of Marion County residents ages 18 and older have been vaccinated with at least one dose of the COVID-19 shot; more than 175,000 people. Less than one percent of the vaccinated people have experienced breakthrough cases, and the majority of those cases yielded mild symptoms.

"With the delta variant going around, vaccinated people still have the opportunity to spread the virus," Rothenberger said. "That's why we are asking folks to take additional precautions right now: get vaccinated if you are not already vaccinated; wear your mask; wash your hands; stay home if you are sick — all those preventative messages that we've been sharing since the beginning of the pandemic."

Mask up again

Two weeks earlier, Marion County BOC passed Resolution #21R-20, a statement opposing Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's mask mandate for children attending school and supporting local oversight of COVID-19 response.

Reports through the OHA of the continued increase in cases and hospitalizations, especially among the unvaccinated, have since resulted in the governor increasing mask mandates further, extending to many outdoor activities this week.

At the beginning of Wednesday's meeting, Salem resident Gerald Turner approached the BOC during the public comment segment, requesting that the board adjust its perspective and approach to the pandemic, especially considering recent developments.

"Yesterday (Marion County) saw 464 new cases. We currently have fewer than six ICU beds available at Salem Hospital," Turner said. "And in that time, you chided the governor for not allowing you to exercise local control. Local control would be meaningful if you exercised that control to take action against this pandemic."

Turner, who is an educator, accused the county-board leadership of being absent throughout the pandemic. 

"I would like to be able to go back to school secure in the knowledge that my students will be protected," he said. "Thus far, the actions of the commission have not protected my students, my children and the community at large. You have failed to contain the pandemic."

Turner stressed that the vaccination and outreach efforts on that day's agenda are a minimal step in the right direction. 

"We need more: we need a vaccine mandate for county employees; we need the board of commissioners to clearly and unequivocally state that vaccines work; that masks work. We need the board of commissioners to clearly be on the side of public health here," he said.

Turner said he understands masks mandates are unpopular, inconvenient and uncomfortable, but they are in place for public health and safety.

"Start taking the pandemic seriously, as you should have from the beginning," he added. "Stop playing politics and posturing, and start taking actionable steps."

With that backdrop, the BOC heard from its county health officials, who reported on the agenda's COVID-19 fortifications before the board, including the augmentation of Woodburn Ambulance's contract.

"We've looked at strategies about how we get to the hard-to-reach populations who receive trusted information from sources within their communities…In working through these partners, we are able to communicate information through channels that are really trusted by the communities and have access to people in ways that we just simply cannot reach and can't connect with," Matthews said.

"We are really proud of the equity plan that we've put together; we feel like it's an effective strategy to overcome some of the vaccine hesitancy that we are seeing, especially in specific populations of our community," Matthews added. "And we are hoping that this leads to positive outcomes."


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