On March 12, a long line of people wrapped around a humble, nameless church building in the Whiteaker neighborhood. People were there because it had spread by word of mouth and on social media that a COVID-19 vaccine clinic didn’t have enough appointments to use all of its doses on eligible patients, and was offering the shots to all comers without identification or insurance cards to prove eligibility.
As many as 100 people were inoculated after people with appointments were served.
With fewer than a dozen volunteers and on a tight timeline, the Whiteaker Community Council (WCC) worked with Walgreens to inject 500 doses of the new Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine in the community. Although WCC had a short timeline to locate Oregon Health Authority-eligible residents, other neighborhood groups and community-based organizations could lead similar efforts as a way to empower local communities and help the county vaccinate residents.
Since July 2020, WCC has been active in raising awareness about public health with the campaign “All Four One, One Four All” that is designed to keep renters, the unhoused and elders safe by reminding them to stay six feet apart, wash their hands, wear a mask and test often. The volunteer-run, nonprofit neighborhood group received a $119,376 grant from OHA, which it used to keep vulnerable populations in the area safe.
“We’ve been working for the past nine months since July making sure that people have access to the information that they need from CDC, from OHA, from Lane County Public Health and access to resources like PPE so we can reduce infection and transmission” says WCC At-Large Board Member Ian Winbrock.
Using the grant, the group handed out water bottles and PPE, developed marketing materials and spent as much money as possible in the Whiteaker, Winbrock says.
The Whiteaker is home to the Eugene Mission and has a large community of unhoused people because it’s a safe space for them and it is close to services, Winbrock says. He says unhoused people are twice as likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19, four times as likely to require critical care and three times as likely to die.
On Monday, March 8, WCC received an email from OHA saying the neighborhood group was offered an opportunity to do even more for its community: provide 600 vaccines from Walgreens, but with the requirement that it had to be distributed by the end of the week. In the email, the OHA official says all recipients had to be eligible according to OHA’s guidelines. As of March 18, eligible residents include those 65 and older as well as K-12 teachers and school employees and childcare, and health care providers.
Over the next three days, in addition to working a full time job, Winbrock and other volunteers searched for a clinic location, developed a survey for Whiteaker residents to make appointments based on eligibility and worked with local groups to spread the word about the event.
Around 5 pm the day before the event, Winbrock says group members realized they weren’t getting enough reservations. Initially, the vaccines were reserved for Whiteaker residents, but Winbrock says they decided to open it up for everyone who met eligibility. He shared the survey with other neighborhood groups, the Eugene Chamber of Commerce and on social media.
On the day of the vaccine event, eligible people accounted for 250 out of the 400 appointments, according to Winbrock, but volunteers kept making appointments throughout the day. All 400 appointments were scheduled, and the clinic inoculated 100 walk-ups. And the WCC brought in unhoused people from the Eugene Mission to the clinic.
“Our priority was making sure that folks who were eligible and signed up for their time slot got in to get their shots,” he says. “We really didn’t want to turn anyone away. We didn’t want to waste a single dose given that Walgreens was given this mandate to use these doses as quickly as possible.”
Walgreens initially considered spreading the doses over two days, but Winbrock says the pharmacy decided to use all 500 doses on Friday because they saw it as a success.
According to a letter to WCC from a Walgreens employee obtained by Eugene Weekly, the employee gives the reason why the neighborhood group had a short timeline. On March 2, the federal government announced its plan to have pharmacies distribute the Janssen vaccine, which was approved for use Feb. 28, to certain populations throughout the U.S.
The rollout had to be fast, too, the letter adds, because the Biden administration also placed a seven-day timeline to gauge the capability and efficiency of pharmacies to distribute the vaccine. If educators had already been vaccinated, Oregon was allowed to vaccinate any other eligible populations. “This is the exact situation Oregon found itself in,” the letter reads.
The letter says the WCC event was one of Walgreen’s best and most successful clinics and was the largest one in southern Oregon.
Lane County Commissioner Laurie Trieger, who represents south Eugene, says there’s no such thing as a wrong arm for a vaccine right now. Trieger says there’s two ways to look at COVID-19 infections. A younger person, for example, who works at a grocery store is more likely to contract the virus and can spread it easier. An older person, who could be more likely to have complications for COVID-19, can stay at home if they have the opportunity to stay at home. But Trieger says it’s rare for the county to be confronted with the dilemma of trashing a dose or putting it in an ineligible person’s arm.
LCPH spokesperson Jason Davis says with more vaccines coming into the state, vaccination clinics hosted by community partners happen more often.
Starting March 22, Davis says the state of Oregon will have 80,000 doses of the Janssen vaccine a week, double the collective number of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. Janssen is a single dose vaccine, but Moderna and Pfizer require two shots.
Davis says community-based organizations like WCC could be a big help. “They know who their people are and they have great relationships with them,” he says. “It’s almost like a franchise, where we come in and make sure the clinic can run and they’re the face of the clinic. When you walk in to get your shot, you’re meeting someone from that neighborhood association or whatever it is.”
Although Davis says the county is expanding its vaccination sites with the introduction of Autzen Stadium beginning this weekend, it doesn’t have the capacity to vaccinate every resident — or the ability to reach everyone and still be equitable.
Trieger says at some large-scale vaccine clinics, the Oregon National Guard has been directing traffic, so having smaller community-based events can be inviting for the Latinx community, for example, who may not feel welcome at a location where a person in uniform is present.
Davis says when groups — whether it’s a nonprofit, neighborhood group or social justice organization — have ownership of vaccine clinics, the community has ownership of their health. It’s a way to democratize public health and that’s critical for LCPH, he adds.
“We need to make sure that is part of what happens when we address the next novel respiratory virus because this is not the last one.” He adds that by viewing vaccination as a tool for a community, “that’s really powerful, that’s what we’re pursuing.”
The WCC event worked because of the volunteers, who gave all they could to make the event a success, Winbrock says. “We are so lucky to live in this neighborhood, to have this community that was able to come together because we just care so much,” he says. “Everyone pushed themselves to make this happen. There was no single person who did this by themselves. It was truly an effort of the community coming together.”
Several EW staffers were among those vaccinated.
This article has been updated