As state booster push begins, vaccine appointments in Salem area going unfilled

Sam Bereny, an EMT at Metro West Ambulance, administers a second dose of the Moderna vaccine at a drive-thru COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Centennial Park in Woodburn, Ore. on Thursday, April 1, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Vaccinators in the Salem area need to deliver about 100,000 booster Covid shots in the next month that the state says is needed to head off the spread of the omicron variant. Providers say there is nowhere near that demand locally.

Marion and Polk counties would need to nearly triple the daily number of booster vaccines they’re administering in January to reach a goal announced by Gov. Kate Brown.

At a Friday press conference, Oregon health officials said the omicron variant would soon become the dominant strain and put thousands in the hospital by early February.

The omicron variant is more resistant to vaccines, and health officials said the booster is key in building more antibodies to fight against the virus and minimize how sick people get.

State data shows 7,440 Marion and Polk county residents received boosters in the past week compared to the 8,190 people who received them the week prior.

Those 16 and older are eligible for the booster shot.

The two counties have roughly 10% of Oregon’s population between them.

To date, 73.5% of Polk County residents 18 and older are fully vaccinated against Covid, and 29% – 18,715 people – have received a booster vaccine. Both percentages are about the same as state averages.

Marion County has a slightly lower vaccination rate, with 70% of adults fully vaccinated and 25%, or 65,433 people, having received a booster.

Covid vaccines, including boosters, are free and health insurance is not required to receive them.

Salem Health, the largest vaccinator in the region, is administering about 1,500 Covid vaccines weekly, said Josh Franke, the chief project officer for its vaccine program. Of those, about 800 are booster doses.

Franke said Salem Health could up its capacity to 2,500 shots per week “without making significant changes,” but the demand for boosters isn’t there.

“We’re not seeing a lack of capacity. There’s plenty of appointments available for all dose types,” Franke said.

Appointments for vaccines at Salem Health clinics can be made online.

Shawn Baird, director of Woodburn Ambulance, said he’s not surprised to hear appointments are going unfilled locally, but said drive-through and walk-through clinics the ambulance service has organized have exploded in popularity.

“It used to be just a trickle of people in October, early November coming through those clinics,” Baird said. Walk-in clinics on the Chemeketa Community College campus in Woodburn or put on with Salem social service nonprofit Mano a Mano might have drawn a dozen people months ago. Now, Baird said they’ll see a long line, with 80 people coming through in a few hours.

“We think a lot of it has to do with convenience,” he said. People are more likely to get a booster if they spot the opportunity somewhere they already go, like the grocery store or mall, than if they have to make an appointment for a specific time. That’s especially true because so many people received initial Covid vaccines at mass vaccination sites, he said.

But he said Woodburn Ambulance doesn’t have the staff to offer more mobile vaccine events. Each event requires three to four people minimum, and while clinics may have appointments available, clinic staff have other jobs and appointments to tend to beyond vaccination.

“You can’t take those people out of their job and just stick them out in a pop-up somewhere,” he said.

Marin Arreola of the Interface Network, a local group working to expand access to health care, said they want to add locations at flea markets, expand days and hours of operation, and ramp up outreach through radio, TV and billboard announcements in multiple languages.

The network doesn’t administer vaccines directly, but provides vaccination clinics with bilingual workers and helps register and publicize drives.

But they’ll need more staff to expand that, he said, as do the local hospitals the group partners with.

“Everybody’s stretched,” Arreola said.

Regarding whether Marion and Polk counties can reasonably double or triple their number of residents with booster shots, he said, “With the resources, I’m fairly confident that we can increase it dramatically, and maybe double.”

Jacqui Umstead, Polk County public health administrator, said her department has already been planning for additional Covid vaccination and testing events. Those include a weekly walk-in vaccination clinic at Mi Casita ‘Los Primos’ market in Independence which has operated on Saturdays since the beginning of November. The next event is on Saturday, Jan. 8.

Craig Pope, Polk County commissioner, said he hasn’t seen any indication there’s going to be a mass rush of people trying to get their booster shot.

“We want to be as prepared as we can be for people’s needs for boosters. A year ago we said we need to move this need out of county public health to primary care and pharmacies. I haven’t seen any indicators those entities are saying you’ve got to help us because we can’t keep up,” he said.

He said when vaccines rolled out about a year ago, people were clamoring to get a shot.

“We don’t see that right now. We don’t hear from people that say they can’t get a booster, can’t get access,” he said.

Jon Heynen, Marion County spokesman, said the county is planning for additional vaccination and testing but didn’t yet have details.

An Oregon Health Authority plan to deliver boosters says the state will deploy mobile vaccine teams to long-term care facilities over the next two weeks.

As of Dec. 12, 52% of long-term care facility residents in Oregon had received a booster dose of vaccine, according to federal data. That’s based on reports from about 64% of state long-term care facilities.

The health authority plan, issued Dec. 17, said the state will urge 1 million Oregonians to get booster shots by the end of January, prioritize boosters for those most vulnerable to hospitalization if they contracted the omicron variant like older adults and communities of color, quickly distribute newer treatments for Covid and “dramatically” expand testing, and support healthcare workers and hospitals.

The state also plans to add three new mass vaccination sites to its existing six, including one in Salem.

Franke said as of Tuesday morning, the health authority hasn’t contacted Salem Health asking them to stand up additional mass vaccination sites or mobile clinics.

Other regular vaccination events in Salem like the walk-in clinic at Salem Center are now being run by groups including WFMC Health, a nonprofit clinic in northeast Salem and Woodburn Ambulance.

In response to questions from Salem Reporter about the state’s goals and plans to achieve them locally, Oregon Health Authority spokesman Rudy Owens said in an email the authority is “currently contacting health care providers of all sizes to assess their ability to significantly increase their doses administered, either through increased marketing of available appointments or through increased capacity. We are matching contracted healthcare staff to vaccination sites like clinics and pharmacies to expand vaccination appointments and hours.”

“We did not set the goal of adding 1 million boosters because we thought it would be easy,” Owens wrote. “The Governor is challenging the people of Oregon to reach this goal because it’s what’s necessary to respond to the Omicron threat. It will take a concerted effort across all sectors and regions of the state. Recent survey data show that around 80% of fully vaccinated adults are willing to receive a booster dose, which makes us hopeful that there are another million Oregonians out there willing to get that booster dose.”

The health authority and Marion County are currently operating a drive-through mass vaccination site in south Salem at 3455 Aumsville Highway, but that will be closed Dec. 23-26, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

Franke said encouraging people to get the booster is important.

“The science and the data is showing those who got a primary series are not as protected,” he said. “It looks very clear that getting a booster is your best line of protection. So I do think it’s the right goal.”

But with vaccinations slowing this week as people travel for the holidays and sites shut down for Christmas and New Year’s, Franke said he expects to see the pace of booster shots slow toward the end of the year.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected].

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