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Oregon's rural communities use vans for mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinics

Health departments in Wasco, Sherman, Gilliam and Douglas counties are taking vaccine clinics on the road to improve accessibility for people in small towns.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Away from Oregon’s big cities, getting COVID shots to people often involves travel and persistence.

"We need to go out and have people show up at different events," said Shellie Campbell, interim public health director for North Central Public Health.
"We go to the school, we go to the senior center, we go to the clinics, we go wherever the people will come to so they can get the vaccine."

North Central Public Health oversees the health of everyone living in Wasco, Sherman and Gilliam counties, which butt up against the Columbia River and stretch far to the south and east. It’s a huge swath of land with only 31,400 residents.

Like many health departments this year, the agency has struggled to get enough vaccine.

“But also following the guidelines and meeting those populations or those groups instead of just going out and doing a whole vaccination on everyone and bringing everyone into one space,” said Campbell.

The agency put together a vaccination team that will go where they are needed.

"It's worked really well," said Campbell. "The bus has gone out to Maupin, it’s gone out to Sherman county, a number of places – so it’s really worked well, and we have a really good team that’s able to facilitate that."

As of last week, she said 26% of people in Wasco County, 28% in Sherman County and 26% in Gilliam County have had at least one shot. 

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That effort is continuing, and public health is also working with a clinic called One Community Health to get shots to migrant farm workers in the area and to prepare for as many as 7,000 others expected to arrive for the cherry harvest in mid-June.

Far to the south and west of the gorge lies the sprawling Douglas County.

Dr. Bob Dannenhoffer is the county public health administrator. KGW's Pat Dooris caught up with him last week as he arrived at a vaccination clinic in the small town of Drain.

He said President Biden’s statement that 90% of Americans will be within five miles of a clinic is a bit hard out there, which is why his agency created a mobile vaccination clinic run by a group called a "tiger team."

“Douglas County is the size of Connecticut. We only have 100,000 people, but we’re the size of Connecticut. So when we looked, we were pretty good. We were over 80%. But with the tiger teams, now we’re going to be over 90% of the population in Douglas County within five miles of a vaccine,” he said, at least when the team is there and ready to give shots.

Dr. Dannenhoff said the team will go to small, hard-to-reach areas like Tiller, which has about 250 people living in the area.

RELATED: 'We are at a critical moment in this pandemic': Here are the current Oregon COVID risk levels

Douglas County has been hit hard by the virus, with 2,964 cases and 62 deaths since the pandemic began. 

Besides the county vaccination efforts, the federally-qualified health center Aviva Health is vaccinating people, as are the Cow Creek band of the Umpqua Tribe and the Roseburg veterans administration office.

Aviva spokesman Mark Tsuchiya said Aviva also has two vans that take vaccine to smaller communities including Drain, Yoncalla, Elkton, Sutherlin, Myrtle Creek and Glide.

He said a change in policy by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is helping spread the vaccine to more people.

“Last week, the governor announced she would allow federally-qualified health centers like Aviva Health to immediately vaccinate individuals outside the state’s eligibility guidelines. Since that time, we’ve been vaccinating anyone who wants the vaccine who is 18 or older,” he said.

Have a question or comment for Pat? Email him at pdooris@kgw.com