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Word of mouth helps curb vaccine hesitancy in rural Oregon community

“Rural communities, because we do have such close-knit community members, and people working together, we're able to accomplish some great things," Larry Boxman said

MIST, Ore. — In the tiny community of Mist-Birkenfeld, Oregon the fire station does a lot more than put out fires.

“Getting horses out of creeks, cows out of mud, cats out of crawlspaces / we'll go out and gather firewood because they don't have the ability to do it, making sure they have plenty of wood to get through the winter,” said paramedic chief Larry Boxman.

When vaccines for COVID-19 started to become available, Boxman knew that the best way to get his community protected was to tap into residents’ sense of self-reliance and community support.

He set up his own vaccine clinic in the Mist-Birkenfeld Rural Fire Protection District station. He took the classes, got the funding, and now people from all over Columbia County can come to get their shots right in their own community.

Boxman knows his neighbors. He knew that very few people were going to make the drive all the way into Portland to get a vaccine. From the Mist-Birkenfeld Fire Station to the Portland Convention Center is an hour and a half drive, one way and that's without traffic.

“Having our district residents drive to Portland, or drive to St. Helens which is an hour away would be extremely inconvenient.”

And like so many metro area residents, Columbia County folks were having a hard time finding any Portland appointments.

But with the fire station's local operation, they are reaching the community, even the homebound. Ralph Stafford and his wife, Marge, can’t leave home because of health issues. Boxman and his team reached out to the couple and were able to make a house call.

The vaccine team knew that a big group of people might not want to get the shots at all.

“We have a lot of vaccine hesitancy here and quite a few people that are anti-vaxxers,” said volunteer Kim Tierney.

But, that’s where rural communities have something that urban ones might not, it goes back to depending on your friends and neighbors first.

“People waited to get the vaccine, it's like they were waiting for someone they knew to get it. Once that person got it, and was OK it was like, ‘OK, maybe I’ll get it,’” said Hailey Palmore, the Director of Public Health Services.

Boxman tells us word-of-mouth has been their biggest and best way to get people to sign up for appointments. When it comes to beating the pandemic, bigger isn't always better and the newest technology doesn't always beat a phone call from your neighbor.

“Rural communities, because we do have such close-knit community members, and people working together, we're able to accomplish some great things, and I think this clinic is an example of that,” Boxman said.