WASHINGTON COUNTY, Ore. — In an effort to be more equitable, four health centers in Oregon became part of a new federal vaccine program that began in February. An additional nine have been invited to participate within the next six weeks.
The program's goal is to get more shots in the arms of underserved communities and those disproportionately hurt by the pandemic.
"One of the things we've witnessed during the pandemic is structural racism," Virginia Garcia Memorial Foundation Executive Director Serena Cruz said.
Cruz says she's witnessed structural racism play out in Oregon's vaccine prioritization, too. Of the roughly 433,000 Oregonians fully vaccinated so far, Oregon Health Authority (OHA) data shows only 4% are Hispanic. Yet, more than 13% of the state identifies as Latino/Hispanic.
"To witness the rollout repeating that injury has, I think, been really hard on us as a Latino community and hard on us at Virginia Garcia. We care deeply about enhancing access and removing barriers to health care," Cruz said.
Minorities, migrants, front-line workers and low-income Americans all bear an unequal brunt of the pandemic from both health and economic standpoints.
"A lot of it has to do with access, education, having to work," Eddie Ramirez, a dentist at Virginia Garcia, said.
An immigrant himself, Ramirez says his patients at Virginia Garcia need protection from COVID-19 immediately, and need help accessing protection.
"A day they're sick is a day they can't work and a day they can't support their families," Ramirez told KGW. "I know the struggle of being in a new country, I know the struggle of not knowing the system. And add a pandemic, it can be very scary for our patients.
"These are communities that have had more folks dying from COVID-19 and because they're on the front lines working, it's important that we get them the option to have vaccines first," interim director of Multnomah County's federally qualified health center Amy Henninger said.
The Biden administration is trying to repair inequities by expanding access to vaccines for underserved communities through its new Health Center COVID-19 Vaccine Program. The program to ensure equity is a partnership between the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Health systems and local health departments normally go through state health authorities to request vaccines. But under this program, 250 federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) around the country were chosen to order and receive hundreds to thousand of doses of vaccine straight from the federal government each week.
Four are in Oregon, including Virginia Garcia and Multnomah County Health Center.
- Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, Aloha
- Lane County, Eugene
- Multnomah County, Portland
- Neighborhood Health Center, Portland
The websites for Virginia Garcia and Neighborhood Health Center both say they'll contact those eligible to set up an appointment to receive the vaccine. Both centers ask people to not come to the clinic without an appointment.
An additional nine health centers have been invited to participate over the next six weeks:
- White Bird Clinic, Eugene
- Siskiyou Community Health Center, Inc., Grants Pass
- La Clinica Family Health Center, Medford
- Clackamas County, Oregon City
- Native American Rehabilitation Association, Inc., Portland
- Outside In, Portland
- Wallace Medical Concern, Portland
- Mosaic Medical, Prineville
- Tillamook County, Tillamook
Virginia Garcia will be receiving its vaccines through the program this week, while Multnomah County has already had allotments delivered.
The federal government chose initial health centers that serve many people in these populations:
- Individuals experiencing homelessness
- Public housing residents
- Migratory and seasonal agricultural workers
- Patients with limited English proficiency
"The vast majority of our patient population lives below the federal poverty level," Henninger said.
"The less control, or the more intermediaries, between us and receiving vaccine, the harder it can be to count on when doses are going to come, how ordering process works, what are possible places where things can go wrong," Cruz said.
Both health centers also get hundreds of doses a week through OHA's vaccine equity program, allowing them to set up vaccine clinics for patients.
They call patients, or patients call them, to schedule a shot.
Multnomah County did its 1,000th dose at the end of last week and is still working on ramping up staffing to handle the capacity for more vaccine allocations.
The OHA just gave Virginia Garcia the OK to open its eligibility pool so it can vaccinate all 30,000 patients over the next three months.
"That will make a big difference in our ability to support the people most affected by this disease," Cruz said.
Cruz says they are currently looking for volunteers to help at vaccine clinics.
Virginia Garcia is working with other organizations to reach people beyond its own patients to let them know how to get a shot. It will expand its reach further next month by rolling out a mobile vaccine clinic to reach migrant farm workers and others.