The county still lags behind most of the state in the percentage of residents who received a Covid vaccine. (The Enterprise/Liliana Frankel).

ONTARIO – Malheur County officials say they will focus on using appointments and education to encourage more Latino residents to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The Malheur County Health Department last week submitted its equity plan, explaining to the state how it intended to close gaps in vaccination rates. Malheur County overall has one of the worst vaccination rates in Oregon and the rate among the Latinx community appears even worse, according to state data.

Following months of weekly vaccinations clinics at Four Rivers Cultural Center, the primary change going forward will be a pivot to vaccinating in smaller settings or in appointments at the health department. 

The primary purpose of the equity plan is to address gaps in vaccination rate between the white population and communities of color. 

In Malheur County, there is little data available for the Health Department to tailor its approach, as nearly 40% of those vaccinated have declined to report their race and ethnicity. But combined data in Klamath, Harney and Lake counties shows that the rate of vaccination in the Hispanic community at 16% – significantly behind that of the white, non-Hispanic population, which reports a 33% vaccination rate. Hispanic people make up 33% of Malheur County’s population and are its largest minority group. 

The county’s plan said the challenges of vaccine access in the Latinx community are rooted in historical mistrust between marginalized populations and the government.

The health department noted that it has a good reputation with Latinx clients. 

“Approximately 70% of MCHD clients identify as Hispanic or BIPOC. Over 30% of MCHD staff are bilingual in Spanish,” the plan said. “Every vaccine event had bilingual, bicultural staff and volunteers ready to serve our Hispanic population in an engaging, effective way.”

The equity plan lays out efforts that the health department has already undertaken to improve vaccine access for the Latinx community, most of them related to overcoming the language barrier for Spanish speakers. 

The agency sent a bilingual “Get Vaccinated” postcard to every address in Malheur County, posted two bilingual billboards, and promoted its vaccine clinics on Spanish-language radio stations.

The health department said it will continue to work with with community-based organizations, leaders, and faith communities to “promote vaccine confidence and increase vaccine opportunities.” 

The department said it would rely in part on those relationships to address transportation and language needs.

Agency workers also have been arranging rides to vaccination events for those covered by the Oregon Health Plan. Mobile clinics, often deployed in conjunction with community partners, are also key to reaching more rural areas of the county, the health department plan said. 

Local equity plans have been a feature of Oregon’s Covid strategy since May 21. Each county must vaccinate at least 65% of adults with at least one dose, as well as submit the equity plan, for Covid restrictions to lift.

As of June 7, only 35% of the more than 24,000 eligible adults in Malheur County had been vaccinated, according to state data.

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

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