Once in Freefall, Oregon's Vaccination Campaign Picks Up Steam

Thanks to the fears caused by the delta variant, employer mandates, ease of access, and incentives, more people are getting the jab.

By Julia Silverman September 2, 2021

There’s no sense sugarcoating it: news about coronavirus in Oregon is not great, with cases and hospitalizations higher than at any other point during the pandemic. Deaths are also on the rise.

Amid all this darkness, here’s one sliver of light: Vaccination rates, especially in rural counties where the delta variant has hit the hardest, are going up. Even beyond rural Oregon, 300 people showed up at a clinic at Fabric Depot in outer SE Portland recently, in what Multnomah County officials described as a welcome sign of a “surge” after weeks of slower traffic in midsummer; 200 people packed another recent clinic at Portland Community College, causing clinic administrators to worry that they’d run out of gift cards to give out.

The New York Times reports that Oregon isn’t alone: Vaccine uptake has increased since July in every state in the country, particularly in the hard-hit South.

So, what’s driving the change?

“We definitely believe that the delta variant and the increase (in cases) has contributed to people wanting to get vaccinated,” says Charlene McGee, a program manager with the Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) at Multnomah County. “Plus, people are learning more about the vaccine and their questions are being addressed. People are seeing people who look like them, who are in their circle, getting vaccinated, and they aren’t growing extra horns or turning into a zombie.”

Employer mandates and county incentives also have helped push up rates, McGee says. Recently, anyone who got a Johnson & Johnson shot at a county clinic became eligible for a $150 Visa gift card on the spot. Now, those who receive the two-dose Pfizer vaccine get $100 for their first dose and $50 for their second.

The county has also started offering incentives for so-called vaccine ambassadors, who get an extra $50 for every friend or family member they bring to a clinic. This has proven popular, says county vaccine program manager Angela Booker. She says there are “super-ambassadors” bringing in 20 people at a time. (Folks who bring in more than eight people need to file a W-9 form with the county, since that counts as reportable income.) It's also easier to find vaccine clinics, which are now at farmers’ markets, fast-food restaurants, and local parks.

The seven-day running average of doses administered per day in Oregon has nearly doubled from its low of 4,674 in mid-July, to 8,120 doses on September 1, though that accounts for both first and second doses, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

In Douglas and Josephine County, two of the epicenters of Oregon’s current outbreak, the percentage change in vaccination rates went up 2.3 percent in the last full week of August. Umatilla and Harney Counties, which have also been slammed by the delta variant, recorded 2.2 percent increases, and Jackson County, where hospital capacity issues have been particularly acute, posted a 1.9 percent increase. Overall vaccination rates in these counties range from 60 percent in Jackson County to just 47 percent in Harney County.

It might not sound like a lot, but it’s well above the totals in the state’s three most vaccinated counties: Hood River, Washington, and Multnomah, where the percentage change in vaccination uptake was just .8 percent during the same time period, but where about 78 percent of the population is either wholly or partially vaccinated already.

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