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Minority group leaders discuss COVID-19 vaccine equity in Oregon

People of color have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Advocacy groups asked elected and health leaders to address concerns about vaccine distribution.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Minority community leaders want to make sure COVID-19 distribution in Oregon is equitable.

On Tuesday, Muslim Educational Trust (MET) and New Portland Foundation hosted an online panel discussion. Dozens of representatives from other minority groups joined to lend perspective.

Elected leaders from multiple county and state offices also joined to answer questions and address equity concerns.

"Too often, the immigrant and refugee and the minority communities — our marginalized communities — are left out of the civic engagement process and discussion," Wajdi Said of MET said.

The livestream discussion lasted more than two hours, including recorded remarks from Oregon's US Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici.

"It's especially important that communities without power and clout in so many instances are prioritized," Wyden said.

BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Many minority communities have seen higher COVID infection rates per capita. One example is Oregon's Hispanic and Latinx communities, which make up about 13% of the state population, but have represented 30-40% of overall cases in 2020.

This is due in part to many BIPOC working essential jobs on the frontlines with higher risk of COVID exposure.

"Our communities aren't able to work virtually," explained Veronica Leonard of Latino Network

RELATED: Advocates push for COVID vaccine in Oregon's hard-hit Latinx communities

To help bridge these gaps, advocacy groups have worked with state and county health departments for months to develop culturally specific outreach, covering dozens of languages.

"I can't think of a more important conversation to be having right now," said Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal. "Universal general strategies don't work in order to reach our most underserved communities."

During the panel discussion, speakers said BIPOC communities tend to have less access to health care and COVID testing. Sometimes those groups also do not have trust in government systems.

"There are many instances of racial discrimination and frankly abuse in our history and not so distant past," said Washington County Commissioner Pam Treece. "It lays bare what your strengths and weaknesses are."

Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen was also on the call. He said at the beginning of 2020, the state had an initiative to better reach underserved minority communities. Then, the pandemic hit.

He said the public health crisis expedited the need for connections with minority advocacy groups to reach those communities.

"A foundational reimagining of everything we do as an agency," Allen described.

While the initiative was put somewhat on hold, the pandemic opened new dialogue between local health agencies and advocacy groups.

Such groups have received millions in CARES Act funding to help provide accurate information and COVID testing. They act as trusted buffers between marginalized groups and the government.

Latino Network is one example, working with Multnomah County to provide weekly free testing to the Latinx community. It is pushing for vaccine priority for essential workers and hopes to provide the vaccine at its Rockwood office.

"Because our community members come into contact with other community members and could potentially spread [the virus]," Leonard said.

Many of these leaders joined the 600 applicants vying for a spot on the state's vaccine advisory committee.

On Thursday, OHA announced 27 people who made the cut. They will meet for the first time Jan. 7, to discuss equitable vaccine priority following health care workers and older, more vulnerable communities.

With so many voices and agencies involved, vaccine rollout is complicated.

"This is an unprecedented undertaking," said Jessica Guernsey, Multnomah County Health Department Public Health director.

Patrick Allen at OHA agreed. For context, he explained Oregon had a relatively high rate of flu vaccinations in 2020 of about 1.2 million people.

"Which is pretty good," Allen said. "We need to vaccinate more than three million people twice for COVID."

Some community leaders on the panel admitted uncertainty about the vaccine. Pastor Matt Hennessee from Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church of Portland said he had purposely not received a flu shot in the last 15 years, but that he was on board with the COVID vaccine to protect others.

"My mind has changed a lot. I think the science is great," Hennessee said. "And I absolutely think we should be doing this."

RELATED: VERIFY: COVID-19 vaccine Q&A as first doses are distributed