The Covid vaccine. (Liliana Frankel/The Enterprise)

ONTARIO – Providers and advocacy groups in Ontario said steps were being taken at the local level to ensure that vaccine gets to Hispanic and Latino communities and communities of color, who have experienced higher rates of illness and fatalities from the virus.

Across the country, there has been growing concern that care for minority populations has been inadequate. A new state report cited the disparity in Oregon.

“Persons of Hispanic ethnicity continue to be disproportionately affected by COVID-19: they account for 13% of Oregon’s population but 35% of cases of known ethnicity reported to date,” according to a Feb. 18 report from the Oregon Health Authority. “The age-adjusted hospitalization rate among Hispanics in Oregon is 4.3 times that of non-Hispanics and the death rate 3.2 times as high.”

Malheur County has a 33% Hispanic population.

Currently, the Covid vaccine is only available to people 70 and over and those that hold specific roles such as prison, medical and school staff and caregivers. 

The same OHA report highlights that the Hispanic population in Oregon skews younger than the white population, which helps explain the fact that only 6% of the vaccine recipients for whom data on ethnicity was collected have been Hispanic statewide.

Erika Harmon, spokesperson for the Malheur County Health Department, said that there was no local breakdown available of vaccine recipients by ethnicity. 

With the goal of reaching communities of color in mind, the local health department hosts a weekly meeting with community organizations, including minority-serving institutions like the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization and EUVALCREE, which serves the Hispanic and Latino communities of Malheur County. 

“Not everybody’s on social media, not everybody reads English, not everybody has access to traditional media,” said Harmon. “Through community-based organizations we can help partners in the community share information and reach different populations.”

Gustavo Morales is executive director of EUVALCREE. He said that the biggest ongoing obstacle to distribution of the vaccine is its scarcity.

“It’s hard to tell where the disparities are at because there’s just not enough across the board, period,” he said. 

Renee Cummings, director of the Four Rivers Welcome Center for Refugees / the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Ontario, highlighted other obstacles that she said were significant in preventing the communities she serves from getting vaccinated. She said that since the majority, if not all, of the families in her programs have already had Covid, they often wonder whether they need the vaccine. 

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “You should be vaccinated regardless of whether you already had COVID-19. That’s because experts do not yet know how long you are protected from getting sick again after recovering from COVID-19. Even if you have already recovered from COVID-19, it is possible—although rare—that you could be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 again.”

While information such as this is available in English from the federal government, Cummings said that distrust of the government runs high in refugee communities, which results in even more hesitancy. 

“I think without person-to-person contact, whether it’s doctors saying they’ll do this or one of our interpreters or something, I don’t think there’s any chance that a lot of our families would get the info they needed to go get it done,” said Cummings, referring to the vaccine. 

Jennifer Palagi, vice president of Community Health and Well Being at Saint Alphonsus Health System, said it is “creating vaccine material in multiple languages and provides interpreters and video remote interpretation in all care settings and vaccine clinics to enhance safety and the patient experience.”

Besides language barriers, another equity concern has been the availability of vaccine to those who don’t have a way to participate in a drive through clinic, or can physically tolerate standing outside in the cold waiting in line for the shot.

“The mass way to vaccinate may not work for a lot of people,” said Cummings.

As such, Palagi said Saint Alphonsus was “working with vaccine planning leaders on a mobile clinic outreach program to be launched this spring to reach underserved and homebound communities.”

Harmon said that the Malheur County Health Department also plans to vaccinate Malheur County residents in their homes. 

“The health dept will (eventually) be able to do home visits for people that are homebound on days that we have vaccine clinics,” she said. 

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

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