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Oregon County In Extreme Risk Zone Makes Vaccination A Priority

NOEL KING, HOST:

In Oregon, 15 counties are designated as being at, quote, "extreme risk" for COVID-19. Katia Riddle brought us a report on vaccination efforts in one of those counties.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: The Linn County Fairgrounds is 95 miles south of Portland. Hundreds of medical volunteers drive hours to work here at the county's mass vaccination site.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Are you just one person getting a shot?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Both of us.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK, go around to lane three.

RIDDLE: One retired doctor even road tripped from San Francisco to be here. County Public Health Director Todd Noble optimized for speed building this operation. They can vaccinate eight people a minute. But now he's dealing with a new problem of efficiency.

TODD NOBLE: As you can see, we can fit hundreds of people in here.

RIDDLE: There are not hundreds of people in here right now.

NOBLE: Yes, there are not.

RIDDLE: Initially, staff were vaccinating as many as 3,800 people a day. On this day, they did only 700.

NOBLE: We have tons of extra doses, and people aren't coming in, unfortunately, and we want to get them in.

SHELBY ADAMS: It's kind of a sore subject, you know?

RIDDLE: Forty-five minutes away in the town of Sweet Home, Shelby Adams loads groceries into her car in the Safeway parking lot. She says nothing could persuade her to get the vaccine.

ADAMS: I think it was brought out way too quickly.

RIDDLE: Sweet Home had its economic heyday decades ago when it was a thriving logging town. But now it's more of a pass-through where people stop to gas up on the way to go camping in the Cascade Mountains. With a population close to 9,000, the county health department could vaccinate the whole town in just a few days back at the mass vaccination clinic. But many people here aren't thinking along those lines.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That was fries and Diet Pepsi?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yes.

RIDDLE: A point of pride in Sweet Home is an old-fashioned A&W where a carhop hand delivers orders to parked cars.

ROBERT ARNOLD: I think I have more fear of the vaccine than I do the COVID itself.

RIDDLE: Robert Arnold is waiting for his hamburger special. Many people here say basically the same thing he does. They're scared.

BRIAN HOTRUM: I don't think it's my job to give people medical advice.

RIDDLE: Brian Hotrum is a pastor at Sweet Home Evangelical Church. He's not vaccinated either, but he says he doesn't advise people one way or the other.

HOTRUM: I work hard at staying out of that 'cause that's not my lane.

RIDDLE: There are dozens of churches in the area. Many pastors say the vaccine has been so divisive they've not said anything publicly for fear of alienating people. There are 126,000 people in Linn County, and less than half of them have been vaccinated.

NEVA ANDERSON: I have one more.

RIDDLE: Back at the mass vaccination clinic, emergency manager Neva Anderson and her husband, Erick Anderson (ph), are trying to find an arm for one last dose. They have five hours until it expires.

ERICK ANDERSON: You want to call the bowling alley, see if they want it?

N ANDERSON: I already did.

RIDDLE: The couple has been working here throughout the pandemic, sometimes seven days a week. Neva says they've never wasted a shot.

N ANDERSON: So do you want to go ahead and take it out to the truck stop?

E ANDERSON: Yeah, we can do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

RIDDLE: Erick drives the county van over to Love's truck stop just off I-5.

E ANDERSON: Hi there. I'm with the health department. I got an extra COVID vaccine if anybody wants it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Anybody want a COVID vaccine? Health department's here with an extra.

RIDDLE: No dice. Half an hour later, the team finally finds someone who works at an Italian restaurant downtown.

E ANDERSON: So this arm?

ALEX LOOMIS: Sure.

RIDDLE: Alex Loomis says service industry hours have made it hard to get to the clinic.

LOOMIS: You guys really saving me some time, so thank you.

RIDDLE: County health workers have learned one thing on these vaccination missions. Once someone says no, it's not worth trying to persuade them. Better to move on to the next person.

For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Linn County, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.