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Story by Ben Botkin - Story Source
Published on Wednesday March 10, 2021 - 12:49 AM

Oregon has put seven federally qualified health centers in a pilot project that lets them administer vaccines to their patients sooner than the state's eligibility schedule dictates.

This means the health centers can give vaccines to patients of all categories before the date they become eligible on the state's rollout schedule. It's a move that the state is allowing to get doses into arms sooner for vulnerable communities, including Oregon's migrant farm laborers, multi-generational households and communities of color.

Federally qualified health centers offer primary health care to underserved communities, including people in low-income households, minorities and immigrant communities.

Currently, Oregon's vaccine rollout schedule is focusing on senior citizens 65 and older, plus K-12 staff.

The pilot project means the health centers can start work on other groups sooner. For example, the next date on the state's eligibility rollout is March 29, when Oregonians 45 to 64 with underlying chronic conditions and certain essential workers, including seafood industry workers, agricultural and food processing workers and wildland firefighters, can get a dose. The pilot centers can give those people doses immediately, as well as other groups due to become eligible in the coming months.

Pilot Project Grows

The state has rapidly expanded the pilot project in less than a week. On Wednesday, Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen told lawmakers that three health centers were in the pilot project: Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, which serves Washington and Yamhill counties; and Columbia River Health in Morrow County, and One Community Health, which serves patients in Hood River and Wasco counties and Washington state.

That pilot group now includes four more federally qualified health centers that stretch from rural eastern Oregon to urban Portland. The additional centers are: La Clinica del Valle in Jackson County, Multnomah County Health Centers, Valley Family Health Care in Malheur County, and Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinics, which serves Marion and Umatilla counties as well as Washington state.

"As part of the pilot, these seven FQHCs have been invited to help us expand vaccination efforts for Oregon communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19," said Rudy Owens, a spokesman for the Oregon Health Authority. "Specifically, these FQHCs have been given flexibility to move forward with vaccinating the populations they serve in their communities at their discretion and will not be limited by current statewide eligibility dates."

The move follows repeated vows by state officials that in the vaccine rollout they want to address historically underserved racial and ethnic groups.

The pilot program affects a large pool of people. Multnomah County Health Centers alone has eight primary care health centers, seven dental clinics and seven pharmacies. It sees more than 60,000 patients annually, 60% of them people of color. More than 40% of them are non-native English speakers.

The state has faced criticism in its vaccine rollout, slammed for putting teachers ahead of seniors and vaccinating middle-aged people with underlying health conditions ahead of front-line workers like grocery store laborers. Oregon officials have said limited doses have forced them to make tough choices. They also left the door open to vaccinating groups earlier as supplies increase, such from the newly-approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

But so far, minority vaccination rates have remained low. Just 4% of the people who have received one or both doses of vaccine is Hispanic, state data show. Just 1% of the group to start the vaccination process is Black. Seventy-one percent of people to get vaccinated so far are white. That report, however, also notes that the race is unknown for 11% of people.

With their new flexibility, the seven health centers can vaccinate patients who otherwise might have to wait until May or later. By May 1, the state will roll out the vaccine to more front-line workers and to adults age 16 to 44 with chronic conditions. By June 1, the state aims to open vaccinations to everyone age 45 and older. The general population age 16 to 44 would be eligible by July 1. Vaccines have not been approved for children under 16.

The flexibility is intended to allow the centers to move quicker through their populations, not allow people to skip ahead of senior citizens, state officials stress.

"The participating FQHCs have been given flexibility to move forward in vaccinating the populations they serve without limitation by current sequencing dates; therefore, they could vaccine any individuals they serve down to age 16," Owens said in an email. However, the authority also asks that their work be "guided" by the eligibility phases so they continue to prioritize seniors who need vaccinations.

Owens said the state sent out invitations to the centers on Friday and the responses so far have been positive.

The state allocates 3,700 doses a week total to the centers, which also get separate allocations directly from the federal government.