The mood on the seventh floor of the McCoy Health Department Headquarters was celebratory Wednesday morning as more than 40 employees from the Health Services Center — the County’s primary care clinic serving people living with HIV — lined up to get their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We are all so excited. It’s phenomenal,” Clinic Manager Toni Kempner said. “Our staff has so much grit, but this has gone on for so much longer than anyone thought. And today, this is a breath of fresh air. And once we can vaccinate our patients, that’s going to be ideal.”
Multnomah County has so far received 5,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses, in three batches, the last of which arrived Tuesday, Jan. 5.
The County transferred 750 doses immediately to first responders at Portland Fire and Rescue. And then, because Multnomah County operates the largest primary care safety net system in the state, with more than 30 primary care, dental and specialty clinics that offer immediate care to more than 60,000 vulnerable people — and with a public health system that includes the staff who run low-barrier COVID-19 testing sites — the County began administering COVID-19 vaccinations to County employees identified in the state’s highest-priority group.
This includes the healthcare providers in Multnomah County clinics, workers in the Public Health and Corrections Health divisions, and employees in the Sheriff’s Office. It also includes a small number of employees in the Department of County Human Services who work in a hospital setting.
Among the more than 80 employees who received their first vaccine Wednesday were clinical staff from the Health Services Center as well staff from the McCoy pharmacy and central lab as well as the Health Department's janitorial and security staff, whose daily interactions with the general public place them at higher risk of contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
“We are so vaccine excited,” HIV Health Service Center nurse Trevis Hutsell exclaimed while waiting, a departure from his self-proclaimed pessimism.
But even a resident pessimist could see what a game changer protection would be, as he explained what’s at stake when clinic staff get sick with COVID-19.
If Hutsell, a home-visiting nurse, gets sick, he can’t go to people’s homes or camps to help them manage their medications or help them make their space safe for health and recovery.
If clinicians fall ill and staff are forced to quarantine, those staff can no longer serve their patients. If the clinic closes, people can't come in for medications, wound care or behavioral health support. They can’t stop by for bus passes, food, dry clothes or tents.
Zian Chavez hates needles, and she couldn’t watch as the nurse prepared a syringe for her. Even though she was scared, Chavez said she wanted photo evidence of her COVID-19 vaccine, so she handed her phone to a fellow employee.
“I’m doing this for my community and for myself,” she said. “I want people to know it's OK to be scared, and to be brave.”
Chavez has multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that experts have worried would put her at higher risk for a severe reaction to COVID-19. But just the stress of living and working during a pandemic has taken a toll on Chavez’s health.
Chavez has gone to the hospital three times in the last year. Walking is harder, and she relies now on a wooden walking stick. And she finds it more difficult to speak. But she said this year has also made her grateful.
“The year of COVID-19 has been a year of gifts, giving and receiving,” she said. “Never have I experienced so much generosity, so much resilience.”
Chavez, an art therapist at the clinic, scheduled clients for Wednesday afternoon, and she was excited to share the news of her vaccine.
“They’ll be so excited for me,” she said, lingering on the hope that her clients would soon be standing in line waiting for vaccines of their own.
As it was, employees from the Health Service Staff waited sometimes more than an hour Wednesday morning for their names to be called. Masked and keeping their distance, they lined the hall outside the Health Department administration offices, chatting and enjoying the suggestion that one day they might ease into a new normal, one where camaraderie could be physical and personal.
Nurse Caitlin McDougall said she wants to show her clients that the vaccine can be trusted. She ultimately wants them to have the same protection as her, especially because people living with HIV are at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19.
“A lot of people I talk to say they don’t know if they want the vaccine,” she said. “As nurses we work in a highly trusted profession, and this is a good way to show that this is safe.”