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Oregon counties see disparity in vaccination rates for COVID-19

Although vaccination numbers are increasing and some counties are seeing lifted restrictions, others are struggling to break through vaccine hesitancy.

PORTLAND, Ore. — About 49% of Oregon's population has had at least one dose of COVID vaccine, but some counties are struggling to boost demand beyond much lower numbers.

Joseph Fiumara is the public health director of Umatilla County, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state. Oregon Health Authority data show 26% of Umatilla County's total population has received at least one shot. That comes out to 33%-36% of its eligible population.

"[There's] a reluctance to receive it, or straight up opposition," Fiumara explained.

He said the numbers are likely a little higher due to gaps in reporting. A number of Umatilla County residents receive health care at the Walla Walla VA or in Tri-Cities, Washington. Vaccination numbers on Indian reservations also bypassed the county and state, getting sent directly to the federal government.

RELATED: Oregon tribes say they have enough vaccine, but many members are skeptical

However, even with a slight boost, numbers are lower than desired.

Malheur County faces a similar situation, with 26% of its total population vaccinated against COVID-19, or 33%-40% of people who are eligible.

Malheur's public health director Sarah Poe said the county also sees a range in the data because of unknown vaccination numbers across its shared border with Idaho.

"We are undervaccinated, that's true," Poe said.

Both officials in Malheur and Umatilla counties described big challenges in reaching people who are vaccine hesitant.

"Misinformation and the political dynamic that is part of this," Poe described.

Over the last month, Malheur County has posted on social media, advertising free walk-up clinics without lines. Another post offered $5 off lunch at a local food cart.

Both counties explained such incentives may work for people who need convenience, but not on those who are hesitant.

"We have to be really intentional, not judgmental, and provide a really empathetic response to people who have a lot of fears still about the vaccine," Poe said.

Malheur and Umatilla have both utilized regular community clinics and mobile vaccination events for people who are homebound, farmworkers, homeless communities and refugees.

Umatilla County said as of this week, it had to end one of its regular drive-thru clinics, because demand was not high enough.

Fiumara explained despite being embedded in his own community, his neighbors' distrust in government is part of the challenge.

"It doesn't help our case a lot when the messenger coming to you is somebody you're already a little skeptical of," he said.

Benton County in western Oregon is on the other end of the scale, with Oregon's highest vaccination rate of 59% of its total population, or 67% of eligible people.

For perspective, Multnomah County sits at 55% of total population vaccinated, or 65% of people who are eligible.

"The secret is there's lots of secrets," said Kelly Locey with the health department in Benton County. "Really different outreach strategies."

Benton County has also adopted various clinics, from mass events at Reser Stadium, to mobile efforts in rural parts of the county. It has also formed a Vaccine Confidence Coalition, partnering with community groups to identify vaccine myths and to target misinformation.

"Meeting people where they are," Locey said.

Benton County's resources have been poured into public information campaigns and phone banks to answer vaccine questions and concerns.

Health leaders are working on similar efforts in undervaccinated counties.

Staff in Malheur, for example, have received CDC training to better reach hesitant people.

"We know that this vaccine protects us and saves lives," Poe said. "We have lost five people just in the last month here in Malheur County, some of them young people, people who have families who are grieving right now. And we have to remember how much we're interconnected, and that we're stronger when we really think of others."

Poe said a key incentive for many people to get vaccinated is the promise of lower COVID restrictions and repealing mask mandates.

The Pendleton Round-Up in Umatilla County hinges on falling COVID cases and increased vaccination rates.

The event draws in more than 50,000 people to the area and recently received a vote of confidence to return this year after being canceled in 2020.

"I would fully expect that we will be able to Let'er Buck, so to speak, in September," Gov. Kate Brown said during a news conference on May 11.

"I can tell you, people didn't hear that that was contingent upon vaccination," Fiumara explained.

Umatilla County is working on public campaigns, showcasing known leaders and figureheads who have been vaccinated to help inspire confidence in others. 

Malheur has done something similar, posting a picture of county judge Dan Joyce getting vaccinated.

He's quoted in the caption saying, "We need to get businesses opened and we need to get kids in school. If taking the shot will help get that done, then that's what we all need to do." 

Credit: Malheur County Health Department

Umatilla said its campaign will involve audio, video and print materials.

"We're going to keep at it. We're going to keep working," Fiumara said.

RELATED: 5 Oregon counties will move to lower risk level Friday, but not Multnomah County. Here's why

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