The Vaccine Floodgates Are Opening in Oregon. What Does That Mean for Mass Clinics?

They'll keep relying on community volunteers—but that's getting tougher at a critical juncture.

By Julia Silverman April 7, 2021

Volunteers are needed at the mass vaccine clinics in the Portland metro area.

Only six weeks ago, snagging a volunteer shift at one of the three mass vaccination clinics up and running in the Portland metro area was no easy feat, perhaps second only to scoring an appointment for an actual vaccine. 

Now—as the state opens eligibility to millions of Oregonians in the next two weeks—the need for volunteers to direct traffic, monitor patients, and act as greeters at the high-volume clinics is higher than ever. But interest in the volunteer gig might be waning. 

The mad rush to volunteer in the first weeks was driven partly by altruism and partly because volunteers—as de facto health care personnel—were eligible to get their own shots, in some cases, months before their turn would have come up. 

But as eligibility expands—on Tuesday, Gov. Kate Brown announced that all Oregonians ages 16 and up would be able to get their shot as of Monday, April 19—that might be less of a draw. And the first wave of volunteers has already received their immunizations. 

“There could certainly be folks who do it once or twice and drop out of the workforce, and we can’t control that, which is why we need this continuous run of volunteers,” says Dr. Renee Edwards,  the chief medical officer at Oregon Health & Sciences University. “I hope we can rely on people’s better nature. 

There’s enormous urgency around the vaccination campaign, as the country works to tamp down a regional uptick in case numbers and hospitalizations that’s being chalked up to fast-spreading COVID variants coupled with business reopenings and increased domestic travel. Countries that are moving more quickly than the US in vaccinations, like England and Israel, have seen cases plummet, while regions that are moving more slowly, like the European Union, are seeing a surge. 

There are several issues complicating matters in Oregon, Edwards says. The supply of vaccines coming into the state, while still not as high as it could be, has expanded significantly in recent weeks, which means that mass clinics are doing greater volumes of shots, and need more people to pull it off. To keep up with demand, OHSU is hiring some temporary employees, Edwards says, as well as cycling hospital and health system staffers in for regular shifts. 

Additionally, all volunteers need to go through a background check, and that’s proved to be a bottleneck, especially since Oregon hospitals are contending with other health systems from around the country for time from the subset of firms that are cleared to run background checks, Edwards says. And it is difficult to get volunteers during the workweek, she says, especially as more Oregonians are returning to regular schedules as schools reopen. 

Currently, Kaiser Permanente and Providence Health & Services are accepting new volunteer applications via their websites to work in the clinic at the Oregon Convention Center that is staffed by all four major metro area hospitals; OHSU expects to clear its backlog in the next few weeks and reopen the application process then. 

Looming over it all is the question of how long the mass vaccination clinics—which are expensive to stage—will need to be in operation. Currently, about 19 percent of Oregonians are fully vaccinated, and 31 percent have received at least one dose. According to Household Pulse Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau, about 57 percent of Oregonians ages 18 and up plan to get or have already gotten a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Edwards says she thinks that by July at the latest, operations will be winding down at the clinics at the airport, the convention center, and Hillsboro Stadium, especially as local pharmacies ramp up their vaccination programs, along with community health centers and mobile clinics.  

Still under discussion for now is whether there will be mass clinics for Oregonians 15 and under when they are eligible, she says, or whether their doses will need to be administered in specialized pediatric settings. 

For now, Edwards says there is still “an ongoing demand for a volunteer workforce to assist with these clinics. We still have an awful lot of people to vaccinate and ideally they would volunteer for multiple sessions. There are busy days ahead of us.” 

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