The Covid vaccine. (Liliana Frankel/The Enterprise)

ONTARIO – As Oregon moves closer to its vaccination goal of 80%, vaccination rates in communities of color still mostly lag the white population. 

In Malheur County, demographic data for vaccine rates is still being combined with data from Klamath, Lake and Harney counties because the Black, Pacific Islander, American Indian and Alaska Native and Asian communities in the area are so small that issues of confidentiality are a factor. 

The data also is of limited use since at one point, almost 40% of vaccine recipients in Malheur County opted not to share their race or ethnicity. 

Small improvements in vaccination rates for every group have been noted this fall – but those were in part because the 2020 Census showed overall declining populations in the four-county area. The percentage of population vaccinated wasn’t adjusted to reflect the lower numbers, meaning a higher vaccination rate was calculated.

By late September, Latinos, who make up 33% of Malheur County, had a vaccination rate of 29% in the aggregate data. American Indian and Alaska Natives were 24.2% vaccinated, Asian people were 38.5% vaccinated, Black people were 24.7% and Pacific Islanders were 72% vaccinated. 

White people, meanwhile, were 49.5% vaccinated. 

With the exception of the Pacific Islander community, all demographic groups in Malheur County are far below the state goal of 80% vaccinated. 

In realizing that communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, the Malheur County Health Department and its partners have been working to vaccinate the Latino migrant and seasonal farmworker community. 

Vaccine hesitancy is undeniably a factor, said Roberto Gamboa, operations director at Euvalcree. The organization serves communities in eight counties in eastern Oregon.

“There’s a lot of hesitancy, a lot of misinformation that gets shared via social media or word of mouth,” he said. “Unfortunately that spreads much faster than correct information.”

Gamboa said that common reasons for hesitancy included not knowing what was in the vaccine and fear of side effects. 

Euvalcree’s strategy to overcome such hesitancy has been through in-person conversations while the staff is delivering other services to the communities they serve. 

A grant from the Oregon Health Authority allowed the organization to hire 25 people through a paid internship program with Blue Mountain Community College, Eastern Oregon University and Treasure Valley Community College. 

Students serve as community support specialists whose job it is to help provide wrap-around services to community members sick with Covid, as well as helping out at vaccine events with tasks like setting up equipment, Spanish to English interpreting, and informally assisting nurses. 

Gamboa said that while rumors could spread quickly by word of mouth, so could positive information about the vaccine – especially personal testimony from family and friends.

“A lot of folks are like, ‘We’ve done everything we can.’ But getting (personal testimony) makes a lot of folks really reconsider that vaccine convo,” he said. “Maybe it will start to shift a lot of those anti-vaccine folks.”

Gamboa praised the health department for its efforts to connect with communities of color. That included posting bilingual billboards, a bilingual mailer campaign, Spanish-language radio ads, inviting the Mexican consul from Boise to vaccine events, and ensuring Spanish-language access to health department services. 

Another community-based organization working to close the equity gap in vaccination rates for communities of color is IRCO, the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, which also received a grant recently to support its vaccination efforts. 

Using that money, IRCO staff planned three vaccine clinics at a Nyssa housing complex with a high density of migrant farmworkers. 

The clinics were conducted much like a block party, with a DJ, raffle, and a food truck, according to Angie Sillonis, public information officer for the health department.

The clinics “saw 27 people vaccinated; 26 self-identified as Hispanic, and four were between the ages of 12 and 17.”

According to Gamboa, coupling vaccination events with incentives and other activities is a good strategy. 

“We’re hoping that with the flu shots coming up, having (them and Covid vaccines) together may benefit community members as well,” he said. “We’ll just work little by little to see how winter continues to go.”

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

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