Oregon communities hardest hit by COVID-19′s spread also have some of the lowest vaccination rates to date.

Four Eastern Oregon counties, Morrow, Malheur, Baker and Umatilla, are enduring the highest test positivity rates in the state. In Morrow County’s case, Oregon Health Authority data show a percentage of positive tests that is three times higher than in Multnomah County, or the state average. In Malheur County on the Idaho border, that disparity is even worse.

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Communicable disease supervisor Jill Johnson draws out doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Deschutes County Public Health Department in Bend, Ore., Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021.

Communicable disease supervisor Jill Johnson draws out doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Deschutes County Public Health Department in Bend, Ore., Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

Last week, Oregon health officials redirected vaccines that had already been promised to 18 counties. The detoured doses never made it to Morrow, Malheur and Baker counties, leaving regional leaders frustrated and angry with a state plan they said ignores the vulnerabilities of rural Oregon.

“We’re still burning up here, and they’re not putting the resources on the fire,” said Morrow County Commission Chair Don Russell. “There’s nothing equitable about that.”

Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen has said vaccines were redirected to allow areas with unvaccinated people in the Phase 1a eligibility bracket to catch up: “In other words, if you’re a county that believes you’ve vaccinated all your eligible populations, we’re not giving you additional doses to vaccinate your ineligible populations,” Allen said Jan 29.

That message did not land well with many elected leaders and health officials in Eastern Oregon. Morrow County’s Russell said the rules unfairly benefit cities with a higher per capita rate of 1a recipients, such as health care workers and teachers.

In Malheur County, Health Director Sarah Poe has long battled high infection rates on the Idaho border, and a death rate that is twice the state average.

“We’ve lost five people in just the last two weeks in a community of just 30,000 people ... That is devastating,” Poe said.

Without more vaccine supplies, she’s worried more people will die.

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“We closed our businesses. We kept our kids home and caused a ton of other hardships on people who already were so vulnerable. And then, we have a vaccine plan without tying it to who’s dying? Where are hospitals full? And how do we save lives?” Poe said. “We have gotten off track from the goals of our COVID response.”

Unlike Malheur and Morrow, Umatilla County received an additional supply of doses this week. But even with the immediate relief, Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock said the overall method of prioritization “flies in the face of science and equity.”

“I think the Hispanic population has been an afterthought ever since day one,” Murdock said.

In Umatilla, like neighboring Morrow County, Latinos account for about a quarter of the population — well above the state average. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 infection rate among Hispanics statewide is four times that of non-Hispanic people, OHA data show.

Oregon Health Authority director Patrick Allen, at a press conference Monday, March 16, 2020.

Oregon Health Authority director Patrick Allen, at a press conference Monday, March 16, 2020.

Kaylee Domzalski / OPB

Morrow County commissioner Jim Doherty said workers in the region’s agricultural and food processing industries often don’t get sick time, and can’t afford to miss work for illness or quarantine.

“I just don’t know whether to scream or cry,” Doherty said of the redirected vaccines.

He bristled at the idea that his county’s high infection rate stems from willful noncompliance with preventative measures like masking and physical distancing.

“I get so frustrated when I get on social media and somebody in Seattle says, ‘You’ve got a bunch of cowboys out there, if you just listened to your governor.’ While they’re sitting down eating a steak and potato that were processed by these folks,” Doherty said. “It’s just not possible to run a food processing plant via Zoom.”

When asked about the rural equity issues on OPB’s Think Out Loud this week, OHA Director Allen acknowledged the disparity but did not offer a short term plan to address access.

“I think it will begin to equal itself out somewhat as we begin to move into seniors,” Allen said. Access for seniors 80 and over is scheduled to begin Monday, but people between 65 and 70 years old aren’t scheduled to start vaccination until March.

The state health director pointed to Wheeler County as a part of rural Oregon that was well ahead in vaccinations compared to other counties. Wheeler County is also one of the most sparsely populated counties in the state and hasn’t been as hard hit during the pandemic as Morrow, Umatilla or Malheur counties.

“I think we are actually doing a pretty good job of trying to be geographically equitable,” Allen said. “But the challenge is there just isn’t enough vaccine, and no matter how you categorize people, there are going to be more people eligible for the vaccine, who want it right now, than we can get it to right now.”

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