The Gorge has always been a leader when it comes to taking care of one another. Since COVID-19 hit last spring, we have been seeing less of each other face to face — but that doesn’t mean we have stopped working together or supporting those who are most vulnerable. Since the COVID vaccine became available, countless organizations, made up of community members, have worked tirelessly to get the vaccine into people’s arms as quickly as possible. And we wouldn’t have been able to do this without our key ingredients: Strong existing relationships and willingness to collaborate.
In Klickitat County, collaboration among clinics from Goldendale to White Salmon has made the vaccine more available throughout the region. Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, staff at the Klickitat County Health Department have been meeting regularly with Klickitat Valley Health in Goldendale, Skyline Hospital, and NorthShore Medical Group in White Salmon. Relationships strengthened, which meant that when it came time to vaccinate, it was easy to work together.
Klickitat Valley Health (KVH) purchased a freezer for the Pfizer vaccine when it became available several months ago. The clinics on the west side of the county began receiving the Moderna vaccine, but it wasn’t enough — so KVH started sending its Pfizer vaccine to the west side clinics. When the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was paused, affecting a vaccine clinic NorthShore had already scheduled, it was the Klickitat County Health Department’s turn to provide enough Moderna doses so that community members didn’t have to cancel their appointments.
In a collaborative effort with Mercer Ranch, nurses with the Klickitat County Health Department have given vaccines to farmworkers in the eastern part of the county. Mercer Ranch secured space for the clinic at the Alderdale fire station and put the health department in touch with other ranches in the area who had employees and staff interested in getting the vaccine. As a result, in one day, 250 vaccines were given at farms and vineyards.
“Everyone is cooperating and working very well together,” said Kristi Ridgeway, Clinical Division manager at Klickitat County Health Department. “[It’s about] really just wanting the best for the county and getting the shots in people’s arms.”
Cooperation is happening on the Oregon side, too. North Central Public Health District (NCPHD), serving Wasco, Sherman, and Gilliam counties, has been hosting regular vaccine clinics at the Readiness Center in The Dalles. NCPHD partners with Mid-Columbia Medical Center, who helps staff a Wednesday clinic, as well as the Wasco County Medical Reserve Corps, which has provided about 1,700 volunteer hours at vaccine clinics as of the third week of May. NCPHD’s Friday Night Lights vaccine event, which had music, free pizza, and snacks, was spotlighted by the Oregon Health Authority for its success and creativity in getting the vaccine to 16-17 year olds.
Hood River County Health Department has also hosted multiple large vaccine events and has prioritized farmworkers because of the disproportionate impact of COVID on this community. In Hood River County, about 46 percent of COVID cases have occurred in the non-Latino community, with 54 percent of COVID cases occurring among Latinos, even though Latinos make up closer to 30 percent of the population. This inequity occurs because Latinos more frequently hold higher risk jobs, do not have paid vacation or sick days, and less access to health care or linguistically and culturally appropriate health information, among other barriers. We have also seen this play out on a national level.
“Our partners were so amazing and critical, they were such a big part of getting our farmworkers signed up,” said Sarah Franklin at Hood River Health Department. “I have a representative from Oregon Child Development Coalition in one of my meetings who would sit down with her families and sign each of them up on the online system. She had a direct route with me if she needed any help. And she was able to reach families we might not have been able to reach otherwise.”
Heart of Hospice has been another proactive community partner in distributing the vaccine, at first via home visits to its own patients, and later to the community at large through multiple pop-up clinics in Cascade Locks, Hood River, and for local orchards.
“We reached out to our health departments, Mid-Columbia Center for Living, all the doctors we work with, and just said, ‘Hey everyone, going into people’s homes is the name of our game. Now we can give COVID vaccines and would love to help service this population that’s difficult to reach,’” said Jessalyn Fey, a nurse at Heart of Hospice.
By the middle of May, Heart of Hospice had given roughly 900 COVID vaccines.
Through a partnership with The Next Door Inc. and Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, One Community Health (OCH) hosted multiple vaccine events at Celilo Village throughout the winter and spring. Its staff created a fact sheet in plain language detailing facts about the vaccine and conducted in person outreach at Celilo Village and the local in lieu fishing villages, helping Native American community members sign up for the vaccine. If someone didn’t have transportation, OCH staff worked with MCEDD, which provides free transport to vaccine appointments.
Because OCH was part of a pilot program through the Oregon Health Authority, it was able to offer the vaccine to farmworkers and tribal community members before they were eligible according to federal guidelines. This expedited and improved access to communities that have been disproportionately affected by COVID.
“At the last [vaccine] event, I heard a gentleman I’ve known since I was a girl talking about how beautiful it was for him to be a farmworker and for him to be vaccinated first,” said Gladys Rivera, Preventative Services manager at OCH. “The fact that we’re first means a lot.”
Many farmworkers have now received the COVID vaccine, in large part due to education and outreach provided by The Next Door Inc., and clinics held by One Community Health. In December, Kathy Nishimoto at Duckwall Fruit conducted a survey among employees to see who was interested in a vaccine.
“At that time, only 40 percent were willing to do it,” said Nishimoto. “We’re up to 72 percent vaccinated right now.”
Throughout the pandemic, whenever Nishimoto received information from The Next Door, she would print it off and share it with her employees. Through word of mouth, vaccine acceptance slowly spread. So when One Community Health reached out to Duckwall, Nishimoto was eager to get the clinics started. The first clinic vaccinated growers in addition to employees, and the second clinic vaccinated about 600 agricultural workers.
These are just a handful of examples of how the community has been working together to offer the COVID vaccine. There’s still more to do, but the strong relationships among health departments, non-profits, and local businesses have enabled us to do this challenging work more effectively, and do it together.