February 23, 2021

Multnomah County’s Communicable Disease program teamed up with the REACH Program, Highland Haven and community partners to vaccinate nearly 400 seniors Friday in the County’s first large event for elders in communities experiencing the highest rates of COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and death. 

Bishop Stewart Minnieweather was the first to get his COVID-19 vaccine during a community clinic Friday, Feb. 19

The clinic, hosted at the Highland Christian Center in east Portland, focused on providing free and low-barrier COVID-19 vaccines to elders 70 and older from Black and African American, immigrant and refugee, indigenous and other communities of color. The County will return in four weeks to administer a second dose to those same residents.

Eligible residents had to sign up for slots and complete a health screening before arriving at the clinic. At the door, specially assigned navigators helped guests sign in, complete further screenings, answer questions, and provide any needed interpreter services.

From there, nurses and paramedics administered the vaccine doses. Meanwhile, other medical staff watched over all of the newly vaccinated people for a short observational period, usually 15 to 30 minutes. 

Joyce Harris, a retired teacher and lifelong community activist, was among the first to receive her vaccine Friday morning. Minutes after arriving, Harris and her husband had already received their shots and were sitting in the observation area, waiting to head home.

The past year has been rough for them, Harris says. She spends much or her time in community service, volunteering with nonprofits and serving on community boards. And month after month, she feels like she spends every waking hour on Zoom. She’s struggled with insomnia, high blood pressure and a blood clot. And people she loves have come down with COVID-19.

African American people experience higher rates of disease, hospitalization and death from COVID-19. But the rapid pace of vaccine development, coupled with a history of racism in healthcare, have made some people wary of being among the first to get the shot.

“I know from talking to people that there is fear. Some people in the Black community may be reluctant to be first to get this vaccine because of past experiences with medical care,” she said. “At first I wasn’t sure I was going to take the vaccine. But you look at all the people dying from COVID. Even with side effects, you’re better off with the vaccine than without it.”

J.J. Johnson said he decided to get the COVID-19 vaccine after doing some research.

J.J. Johnson and his wife were also among those originally hesitant about the vaccine.

“At first we were concerned. But my wife and I started getting more educated,” he said. “I wouldn’t be the first one to get the vaccine. But after a couple million? OK, now I will.”

He’s retired now, and his daily routine hasn’t suffered much from the pandemic and the ways it’s shut down society. His family has remained healthy, too; but it’s hard to escape the heaviness of the last year.

“I hold things in, but it’s been stressful,” he said, nodding his head. “We’ve been fortunate compared to other states. I’m blessed I get to have the vaccine.”

Black Oregonians comprise more than 2 percent of the state’s population and 2.5 percent of COVID-19 cases. But they are three times more likely to be hospitalized with the disease, and three  times more likely to die, than non-Hispanic white people. Yet, at the same time, Black Oregonians account for just 1.5 percent of those who have received the vaccine statewide.

The higher rates of illness, coupled with unequal vaccine access, has led Multnomah County to center racial equity in its vaccination strategy. And that strategy involves working with community groups to coordinate events where people feel welcome and don’t have to compete for access.

“We heard from the ACHIEVE coalition and other partners that we needed this,” said Charlene McGee, program manager of REACH, which stands for Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health and works to redress chronic disease disparities within Black communities, while cultivating a culture of health and resilience. “We want to be culturally and community responsive.”

REACH, Multnomah County Communicable Disease Services and the County’s Emergency Operations Center began planning the event the Friday before, Feb. 12. By Sunday Feb. 14, the slots were full.

“One thing we’re seeing is a lot of talk about hesitancy, but we need to talk about access more than hesitancy,” McGee said. “As we educate our community, we are arming the community with facts and dispelling myths. We want to provide people with accurate information, so they can make informed choices for themselves, their families and our community.”

COVID-19 Community Testing Nursing Supervisor Jazmine Bowles, left, talks with REACH program manager Charlene McGee during their Feb. 19 vaccine clinic.

It was the first culturally specific clinic REACH helped organize, and McGee said she was proud and inspired by the enthusiasm of the Public Health team who work long hours to stand up many other community vaccine clinics throughout the week.

And McGee said it was heartwarming to reconnect with people kept apart by COVID-19.

“You could feel it, the community, and how much people are longing to connect,” she said. “You saw people who knew each other, saying, ‘I know I can’t hug you, but it’s just so good to see you.’”

Jolly and Mohammed Rahman, who breezed through the clinic before noon, said they will welcome the chance to expand their social circle once they have both been fully vaccinated.

“We spend 24 hours a day together,” Jolly said with a grin. “My daughter says we should do things apart, but we just want to be together.”

Mohammed laughed, and his paper mask slid down his nose. Jolly has been experimenting with her air fryer, and took up baking — zucchini scones and banana bread are recent recipes. Mohammad, who is rail thin, joked that he has spent the year of COVID-19 eating her meals and following her orders. Jolly laughed, and reminded Mohammed, again, to pull up his mask.

As much as they enjoy one another, they miss their family and friends, many of whom also come from Bangladesh. 

Morgan Dickerson, left, and his wife Pat look forward to a time when, once fully vaccinated, they can go out to dinner and plan a road trip.

“We are so isolated. We can’t see our kids. We have a lot of friends. We’re a close community,” Jolly said. “We used to have parties all the time, birthdays, weddings, funerals. Now if someone dies, we can’t go see them.”

Two rows away, Pat Dickerson, 77, and her husband Morgan, 79, read books while their observation period ticked by. Pat heard about the clinic through her sorority, the Portland Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

Both retired, the Dickersons said their life has nonetheless narrowed during COVID-19. 

“Not seeing the kids, your friends, not going out to dinner,” Pat said. 

Last year was the first time in 53 years the couple didn’t drive back to New Jersey to visit Pat’s family, stopping for a week in Denver to visit Morgan’s family. 

This summer they’ll both be vaccinated and perhaps they can make the trip. And soon they can look forward to sliding into a bench at the Spaghetti Factory or Outback SteakHouse.

“Just being able to get out and about,” Pat said.