Health

Oregon Public Health Workers Race To Vaccinate 'Extreme Risk' Counties

Linn County Emergency Manager Neva Anderson and her husband, Erik Anderson, say they've never wasted a shot, but it's getting harder to find people who want a COVID-19 vaccination.
Linn County Emergency Manager Neva Anderson and her husband, Erik Anderson, say they've never wasted a shot, but it's getting harder to find people who want a COVID-19 vaccination.
Katia Riddle/Katia Riddle

Listen to story

03:35
Download this story 3MB

In Linn County, Ore., public health officials have worked tirelessly to build an efficient mass vaccination clinic at the County Fairgrounds. They have the ability to vaccinate eight people per minute, thousands each day.

Hundreds of volunteers work there. Some drive hours in order help direct the flow of traffic or give shots. One retired doctor even road-tripped from San Francisco to work his shift.

But now, officials are dealing with a new problem of efficiency: not enough people.

"We have tons of extra doses, and people aren't coming in unfortunately," says County Public Health Director Todd Noble.

There are 126,000 people in Linn County, and less than half are vaccinated. It is one of 15 in Oregon designated "extreme risk." Though Gov. Kate Brown has announced this week she'll soon relax the restriction and allow restaurants in these counties to seat people indoors again among other freedoms, she warned residents there that hospitals are still running close to capacity and they will need to stay vigilant in taking precautions against COVID-19.

The designation was announced after a fourth wave hit Oregon hard; until recently the state had seen relatively low numbers of infection.

When the vaccine first became available the staff at the fairground clinic was vaccinating nearly 4,000 people a day. More recently, that number fell to only 700.

"We knew there would be a drop in demand at some point," says Emergency Manager Neva Anderson. "But we anticipated more of a bell curve, not a drop off a cliff."

Small-town reluctance

Forty-five minutes from the fairgrounds, the town of Sweet Home has a population of about 9,000. The whole town could be vaccinated in just a few days at the mass vaccination site.

But some people there aren't thinking along these lines.

"I think it was brought out way too quickly," 28-year-old resident Shelby Adams says about the vaccine. "I don't think there's anything that could force me to do it or force me to get my kids to do it."

Some people in Sweet Home say they just haven't gotten around to scheduling their vaccination yet or they don't know how. But mostly people give a version of the same answer: they're scared.

"I think I have more fear of the vaccine than I do of COVID itself," says Robert Arnold. He says he doesn't like needles and he's concerned that all the vaccine side effects are not yet known.

In other parts of the country, pastors have emerged as community ambassadors for vaccination, but in Sweet Home many of the pastors seem as conflicted about the vaccines as the people in their congregations.

"I don't think it's my job to give people medical advice," says Brian Hotrum, who pastors a congregation of 150 at Sweet Home Evangelical Church. Hotrum isn't vaccinated either, though he says he plans — probably — to do it.

Hotrum was one of the only pastors contacted in the area who would agree to an interview. Many said that the issue of vaccines, like masks, has been so divisive they've resisted giving any guidance to their congregations for fear of alienating people. Even some who believe strongly in vaccination said they preferred to discuss the issue one-on-one with families and individuals, rather than give direction to the entire church.

The race to vaccinate

At the end of a recent day at the Linn County mass vaccination site, emergency manager Neva Anderson and her husband Erik look for one more person to vaccinate. The couple has been working at the site throughout the pandemic, sometimes seven days a week. They've both contracted COVID-19 during that time. They say they've never wasted a shot.

On days like these when they need to use up vaccine in just a few hours before it expires, Erik drives a county van around, looking for arms.

"You wanna call the bowling alley?" he asks Neva. "Already did," she replies.

He heads to Love's Truck Stop, just off I-5 and almost convinces a long-haul trucker on her way to Louisiana, but she backs out at the last minute for fear of side effects.

Finally, the team finds someone. Alex Loomis works at an Italian restaurant downtown and says he's been meaning to get a vaccine. But it's been hard to schedule given his work hours.

Erik Anderson says finding people at the end of every day to use up these vaccines is getting harder and harder. He says he's learned one thing on these vaccination missions: once someone says no, it's not worth trying to persuade them. Better to move on to the next person.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.