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Many Oregon people of color eager to get vaccinated against COVID-19 while others wait for answers

Julia Mines didn’t want to get vaccinated against COVID-19, fully aware of the nation’s history of medical experimentation on African Americans. But she did it anyway.

“I needed to set an example,” said Mines, director of a drug and alcohol recovery center for Black Portlanders.

But, in the end, only two of her seven employees at The Miracles Club have gotten shots, she said, even though they had early access because they work face-to-face with people of color.

Mines and her coworkers are among the hundreds of thousands of non-white Oregonians who health officials and community groups are trying to help vaccinate, organizing specialized clinics, giving local groups money to educate the public and allocating hundreds of vaccine doses a week with special access for people of color.

There have been some distinct successes.

People in some communities who were initially hesitant about the vaccine are now coming around. Dozens of groups are signing up immigrants and refugees who might otherwise likely not know where to turn. And one Native American group is already well on the way to vaccinating everyone who wants a shot.

But challenges remain, and no accurate measure of the state’s success so far appears to exist.

The Portland Somali population has struggled to get the county to send in a mobile clinic, a leader in the community said, weeks after he first asked for help. Many Black people continue to fear getting a shot, some leaders said. And undocumented immigrants worry about vaccination, too, even if they’re told that getting a shot won’t put them at risk of deportation.

Some are pointing to insufficient access – whether it’s transportation barriers or registration windows that open only when people are working – as a key obstacle to raising vaccination rates for people of color.

“Ensuring vaccines are available in an equitable and fair way to our communities of color is critical,” said Kasi Woidyla, a spokeswoman for a health network serving majority Latinx patients. “The Latinx communities are being vaccinated at a rate far below other groups despite the fact their positivity rates are three to four times those reported by the state – and it’s not due to hesitancy, it’s due to access.”

A broad view of the Portland area’s efforts to vaccinate groups disproportionately affected by the coronavirus reveals a panoply of concerted efforts to give access to vaccines, impeded at least in part by hesitation and resistance that community groups are continuing to fight.

Oregon has stressed vaccine equity as a central component of its battle to end the pandemic, describing its vaccination drive as an opportunity to reshape the state’s health care system to make up for historic injustices. It created a committee composed of people representing numerous people of color, which recommended counties take special care to vaccinate those groups.

In the approximately two months since then, Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties have been deliberate in allocating doses to clinics geared toward Black, Indigenous and other people of color, and making sure people have access to them.

Combined, they have held or helped organize more than 110 community clinics dedicated to BIPOC populations or underserved groups. Two of the three metro-area counties, Washington and Multnomah, have administered or allocated more than 14,000 doses through these clinics.

The Oregon Health Authority’s metric for determining success is broad, the goal being that about the same percentage of Asians, Pacific Islanders, Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans get shots as their overarching populations. The agency’s publicly disclosed data suggests that’s happening in some cases.

But the reliability of those measures is questionable, Portland State University researcher Charles Rynerson said, almost certainly inflating vaccination rates for Pacific Islanders and Hawaiian Natives and Native Americans, while making rates for whites look lower than they really are.

The Oregon Health Authority did not confirm or deny its calculations are incorrect. The agency did say it erroneously relied on U.S. Census Bureau population data and would use Portland State University numbers going forward. The university’s Population Research Center, however, also uses Census data for its race and ethnicity population estimates.

COVID-19 vaccinations at Garlington Health Center in Northeast Portland

Marty Johnston of Troutdale received the vaccine Friday at Garlington Health Center. The center, run by Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare in Northeast Portland, was offering COVID-19 vaccinations to qualified individuals Friday. Event organizers were also hoping to reach Portland’s homeless population. March 19, 2021 Beth Nakamura/StaffThe Oregonian

The agency also has not released ZIP-code level vaccination data, which could reveal whether neighborhoods with large populations of people of color are getting vaccinated at rates comparable to those that are predominantly white.

Still, for some, it’s clear that county-organized clinics focused on reaching non-white populations have been a lifeline.

So Son-jong, 72, spent three days trying to sign up for a shot for herself and her husband at the Oregon Convention Center in Northeast Portland, with no luck. Immigrants from South Korea, So Byung-kon speaks hardly any English and So Son-Jong had trouble navigating the websites.

Calling the state got her nowhere, either.

Then, she got a call from the Korean Society of Oregon, a non-profit advocating for the thousands of South Korean people in the state. So Son-jong was on their list of immigrants, and she learned Washington County had organized a special clinic, where about 500 doses are typically set aside for historically marginalized groups before being opened to the general public.

So Son-jong happily signed up for shots.

About a month later, she and her husband walked through a conveyor-belt-like set up at St. Anthony Catholic Church, in Tigard. They received their second doses of the vaccine and sat down for 15 minutes in a waiting area to make sure they didn’t have a bad reaction to their shots.

“Everything is OK,” So Byung-kon said.

Specialized health clinics have also been instrumental in vaccinating communities of color. Virginia Garcia serves more than 52,000 majority Latino patients in Yamhill and Washington counties, and is one of seven Oregon health centers permitted to vaccinate any patient over 16 and older – not just those eligible under state guidelines.

COVID-19 vaccinations at Garlington Health Center in Northeast Portland

Robert Ford of Portland chats with Janis Cleveland, director of nursing at Cascadia Behavioral Health, before receiving his vaccine Friday at Garlington Health Center. The center, run by Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare in Northeast Portland, was offering vaccinations to qualified individuals Friday. Event organizers were also hoping to reach Portland’s homeless population. March 19, 2021 Beth Nakamura/Staff

Many non-white people are, on average, younger than the rest of the population. The average Latino Oregonian is 24 years old, compared to 41 for the average white Oregonian.

“If you want equitable access to the vaccine, you shouldn’t be going by age,” said Woidyla, a Virginia Garcia spokeswoman.

Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties have also focused on a combination of community clinics and health networks similar to Virginia Garcia, sending out registration links to community groups who then help people sign up.

Of the approximately 4,800 people who got shots at those clinics in Multnomah County, and whose race the county knows, about three in four identified as people of color.

At least one community leader said Pacific Islanders have been eager to get shots because of how hard the coronavirus has hit the population. State data has consistently indicated Pacific Islanders have the highest COVID-19 infection rates of any ethnic or racial group in Oregon.

“We all know someone who died or who’s been sick,” said Manumalo Ala’ilima, co-chair of United Territories of Pacific Islanders Alliance Portland. “We see this as a way to have the protection that we need so we can safely be together.”

COVID-19 vaccinations at Garlington Health Center in Northeast Portland

Maria Durnford of Portland chats with Robert Snyder, nurse manager at Cascadia Behavioral Health, before receiving the COVID-19 vaccine Friday at Garlington Health Center. The center, run by Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare in Northeast Portland, was offering vaccinations to qualified individuals Friday. Event organizers were also hoping to reach Portland’s homeless population. March 19, 2021 Beth Nakamura/StaffThe Oregonian

But even among Pacific Islanders and others, obstacles remain, counties and community leaders say, primarily surrounding education and communicating across dozens of languages and cultures.

Health officials and community groups have flooded the zone with information translated into dozens of languages, posted videos on social media, held virtual discussions about the vaccine and set up booths to answer questions and help people sign up.

Multnomah County has been reaching non-white Portlanders with five handouts translated into 28 languages and ads with vaccine information on Facebook in Vietnamese, Russian, Spanish and Chinese. Jennifer Vines, the county’s health director, goes on the Spanish-language TV station Univision once a week.

In Clackamas County, Karlo Valle has been trying to build on the relationships he developed over the last year to help Latino farmworkers decide whether to get a shot, and how.

A farmworker outreach educator with Northwest Family Services, Valle drives out to small farms in the county, sets up a booth, and signs willing people up for shots and answers everybody’s questions.

The things he said he’s heard have run the gamut, from a rumor that the vaccine can make a person infertile to the conspiracy theory that the shots contain a microchip. He said he’s seen a gradual progression from extremely outlandish questions to more rational ones, such as concerns about long-term effects.

“You can’t blame these people,” Valle said. “Sometimes fear takes over.”

But he has seen substantial progress.

In one case, a group of farmworkers who had decided to get shots started joking with the lone hold-out — a woman in her 40s who said she wasn’t going to get vaccinated because she “didn’t want to die,” Valle said.

The other workers burst out laughing, Valle said, sarcastically congratulating her on being the only one among them who would live.

Later, Valle thought he had signed up everyone who wanted a shot and was about ready to pack up and go. That’s when the woman came up to him and put her name down for a shot.

“Everything is looking better,” Valle said. “But there is still a lot of work to be done.”

COVID-19 vaccinations at Garlington Health Center in Northeast Portland

Marty Johnston, left, and Tamara Johnston of Troutdale received the vaccine Friday at Garlington Health Center. The center, run by Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare in Northeast Portland, was offering vaccinations to qualified individuals Friday. Event organizers were also hoping to reach Portland’s homeless population. March 19, 2021 Beth Nakamura/StaffThe Oregonian

Meanwhile, at least one community leader in Portland is afraid he is losing the narrative on vaccines.

Musse Olol, chairman of the Somali American Council of Oregon, said that virtually unmanageable rumors have spread through the Somali community.

So far, he has not convinced all of the Somali Imams to tell congregants the vaccine is safe. One of them, he said, has been saying that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine contains pork – something the predominantly Muslim immigrants and refugees are forbidden from putting in their bodies.

While some vaccines do contain gelatin, federal health officials say none of the COVID-19 vaccines do.

Olol also said Multnomah County hasn’t acted on his request for a Somali-focused vaccination clinic, further hampering his efforts to convince people to sign up for shots. He has stopped putting people on his list of Somalis who want to get vaccinated, he said, considering it a pointless exercise while there is nowhere for them to go.

County health officials confirmed they’ve been in talks with Olol about a closer partnership and pointed to clinics that have served an overlapping population, including one event organized with Africa House.

Hesitation also exists in Portland’s non-immigrant Black community.

One community worker, Bretto Jackson, said he is against vaccines. Jackson counsels people who come to the Rosewood Initiative, a community group representing neighborhoods at the Portland border with Gresham.

Jackson said he doesn’t try to sway people one way or the other on whether they should take the vaccine. He helps those who want a shot, he said, and doesn’t intervene for those who don’t.

Personally, though, Jackson said he isn’t getting vaccinated anytime soon.

“I stand behind them 100%,” Jackson said of those who decide not to get a shot. “I don’t trust this government from a can of paint.”


Gov. Brown visits vaccination clinic at Oregon State Fairgrounds

That fear of the vaccine is concerning to some in the community, even if they have their own reservations.

Mines, the director of The Miracles Club, said she is afraid that her unvaccinated staff could get infected with the coronavirus. The five employees who decided not to get shots regularly interact with people who come to the club for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and peer support.

One of the club’s workers who decided against getting vaccinated, Wilfred Johnson, said he takes the coronavirus seriously. He wipes doorknobs down regularly, wears two masks and keeps six feet of distance as much as possible.

But the vaccine appears to scare him no less than the disease it can prevent. He knew how fast the vaccines were developed and a personal acquaintance of his had a bad reaction to a shot, he said, so he’s opted to wait.

In the interim, Johnson has continued what he said is an immune-boosting regimen he began when the coronavirus first came to Oregon: lots of kale, garlic and exercise, less meat, and extra attention to how stressed he is.

Johnson might still get the vaccine, depending on how people he knows fare.

“Is this a tried, true and tested product?” Johnson said. “Or is this more so experimentation?”

That same concern has stalled progress in Warm Springs, one of the hardest-hit communities in Oregon.

On the whole, the Warm Springs reservation has been exceedingly successful getting people vaccinated, the reservation’s top health official said, thanks to the 200 doses a week delivered from the federal Indian Health Services agency and a one-time batch of 500 doses from the state.

Nearly half of the population 16 and older is now vaccinated, Caroline Cruz said, including 79% of people 75 and older.

A man stands in the snow looking at memorial offerings left at his mother's grave

Johnson Bill stands at his mother’s grave in Warm Springs, Oregon. She died Feb. 5, Oregon’s 2,198th coronavirus death. Beth Nakamura/StaffThe Oregonian

But the overall vaccination rate is far below the 80% Cruz said she wants to reach to ensure the unvaccinated are safe, too. Younger people in their 20s and 30s have been declining the vaccine, she said, many of them concerned that the shots were developed too fast to be reliable.

But like in other communities, time could be Cruz’s greatest advocate.

The reservation’s elders weathered any vaccine side-effects they’ve had, Cruz said, sending a message to the younger people that the shots are safe.

“The grandparents are saying, ‘We made it through,’” Cruz said. “‘You can, too.’”

— Fedor Zarkhin

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