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Officials hope vaccine incentives will encourage those on the fence
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Officials hope vaccine incentives will encourage those on the fence

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Demand for vaccines is waning so much that Samaritan Health — and Linn County Public Health — will discontinue its mass vaccination sites after next week. But the campaign to get everyone vaccinated, and to reach the state-mandated threshold of 65% vaccination rate for each county, is far from over.

As counties struggle to make up the difference in the vaccination rates needed to reopen businesses and return life to normalcy, government agencies and healthcare organizations are trying to find ways of convincing those on the fence to get the jab.

Pharmacists from Boots have come together to help dispel the most common myths about the Covid-19 vaccine.

For counties like Linn, which has a vaccination rate of less than 52% of its eligible population, these enticements may be especially key to reaching the 65% threshold necessary to loosen pandemic restrictions. Linn County has to vaccinate approximately 13,400 more people in order to reach a 65% vaccination rate, according to the Oregon Health Authority’s online dashboard.

It trails far behind some other neighboring counties in terms of its vaccination rate. Benton County has just shy of 70% of its eligible population vaccinated. Lincoln County, the other area where Samaritan operates vaccination clinics, has 67% of residents vaccinated.

Once counties meet the 65% mark, and submit an equity plan for getting vaccines to the underserved populations within their borders, they can apply to drop to the lowest transmission risk level. This allows counties to ease things like capacity limits at businesses and events. If the entire state of Oregon reaches 70% of residents vaccinated, Gov. Kate Brown says restrictions can start to ease across Oregon.

Because of this, there are statewide and local efforts to try and incentivize people to get vaccinated.

In May, Brown announced a $1 million lottery where any local residents who receive a shot before June 27 are automatically entered into the drawing. Even minors can get in on the action, with five children aged 12 to 17 able to receive $100,000 to the Oregon College Savings Plan in their name. One person from each of Oregon’s 36 counties is guaranteed to win some money, because there is a smaller $10,000 cash prize raffle for each individual county, as well. The drawings are set to take place in early July.

Samaritan Health tested out a reward program at its Thursday clinic in Lebanon, where those who got vaccinated received $5 gift cards to the 1847 Bar & Grill next door to the Boulder Falls Inn event center where doses were being administered.

“We wanted to offer that incentive here today to just try to boost attendance here,” said Larissa Balzer, Samaritan’s vice president of strategy and planning, who’s overseen several of the company’s mass vaccination sites.

While the gift card didn’t seem to be a primary motivator for people who went to the clinic, it was more of a “thank you” from Samaritan to the 27 people who received a shot at Thursday’s clinic.

“It was some consideration but not much of one,” said Lebanon resident Howard Christensen of the gift cards. “I’ve been wanting to go (get vaccinated) for a long time but it never worked out. Mainly, I don’t want to get the virus and give it to my grandkids. I’d like to go up to Alaska and see them by December.”

There was a strong preference for the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot at Thursday’s clinic, which offered both J&J and Pfizer.

“I don’t want to have to wait to get another shot,” Christensen said of why he picked that vaccine.

A pair of brothers from Albany, both of whom work at the North Albany IGA, said that the gift cards were less of an incentive than the prospect of being able to shed their masks.

“Being able to go maskless was a factor,” said Luke Lanyon. “We were both off work so we figured, ‘Why not?’”

He was referring to the new mask guidance handed down by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and adopted by OHA, which says that fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks indoors – if they can prove it, that is, and only if businesses or agencies don’t simply stick with their mask mandates until more people get vaccinated.

The fact that someone cited this new guidance may be a sign that the incentive behind it is working, which is contrary to the early indicators that the confusion over these new rules may have done more harm than good.

“I think confusion has ruled the day in terms of how do you enforce this (and) how do you know whether you have to wear a mask,” said CEO of Lebanon Community Hospital Marty Cahill. “I think that’s been so confusing so as to not drive increased rates at mass vaccination clinics.”

Others say we can’t really know the effect of the new guidance for sure, since it may have slowed down what was already a trend in declining demand for vaccines.

“I don’t know that we’ve seen an increase,” said Jennifer Nitson, a Samaritan spokesperson. “But I also don’t know if we can know (whether) it did stem the decrease at all.”

Depending on the success of these kinds of incentives, Samaritan may look at other enticements at future clinics, particularly in Linn County.

“We’re going to give it a shot and see what kind of turnout we have,” Cahill said of the gift card incentive. “Linn County is really lagging behind Benton County and Lincoln County.”

Health professionals say that incentives like this may be key to reaching 65% vaccination rate in Linn County, as well as getting those who are the fence in general to get the shot.

“I think people who are on the fence on getting vaccines need a little more incentive,” Cahill said. “Any way we can either incentivize or thank people for getting vaccinated is going to be crucial for getting back to normal.”

It’s also important to note that vaccination efforts aren’t finished in neighboring counties just because they’ve reached the threshold, either.

“The strategy is the same for all counties,” said Cahill. “We’re not done and still got to maintain our vigilance to get everyone vaccinated.”

All of this reflects a changing strategy as the lion’s share of Oregon’s population – those who were already eager and willing to get a shot – is vaccinated. The closure of mass vaccination sites in mid-valley counties means that healthcare agencies are shifting their focus.

In Samaritan’s case, it’s transitioning to what it calls a “retail strategy,” which focuses on getting doses to clinics and workplaces. It will house doses at its clinics in Corvallis, Albany, Sweet Home and Brownsville for anyone to drop by without an appointment and secure a dose.

Officials say having them on-hand, in settings where doctors and nurses are right there to answer questions or address concerns over vaccines, remains the surest way to get hesitant people vaccinated.

“When they’ve got a clinician sitting down with them they can kind of ask them directly what (their questions are),” Cahill said. “That’s one of the best ways to do it … and to approach it from a scientific and clinical approach.”

Samaritan has also focused, throughout the pandemic, on educating the public about the science surrounding COVID-19 vaccines. It will continue these efforts with upcoming seminars geared toward parents and teenagers.

Dr. Adam Brady, an infectious diseases expert and the head of Samaritan’s COVID-19 Taskforce, as well as Samaritan pediatrician Dr. Edward Frothingham, will be hosting an online webinar on June 18 to answer questions from the public surrounding teen vaccines.

Officials say getting minors vaccinated remains a key component in reaching the herd immunity thresholds that will allow Oregon to reopen. The numbers for eligible populations in each county is based on those who are 16 or older.

When it was announced in May that those 12 and older were now eligible for the shots, many expected a surge in demand at mass vaccination sites. That surge was more muted than some expected, and in the case of Linn County, the lack of one may be contributing to the low vaccination rates.

“I think the lower percentage in Linn County lends itself to not seeing that big surge,” Cahill said. “We’re working with superintendents to inform their students that they can get vaccinated. In Sweet Home and Lebanon, we’ve reached out to those school districts.”

Part of that muted response may be due to the confusion surrounding whether teens would be able to get vaccinated without parental consent. The Linn County Board of Commissioners on May 10 accepted a letter from its legal department stating that the county’s policy is to require parental consent for all minors.

Oregon law states that teens 15 and older can consent to emergency medical procedures without parental permission. Vaccines fall under this category. However, the county’s legal department says in the letter that, since vaccination clinics are being run by the county health department, it is allowed to require parental consent of all minors.

For its part, Samaritan is trying to be clear that older teens can, in fact, receive a dose at its clinics without parental consent. It even hosted a Teen Day at its Reser Stadium vaccination clinic back in May.

Further efforts include mobile vaccination clinics in both counties, which are delivering doses directly to workplaces, as well as people’s homes who cannot get to the mass clinic sites.

“What we recognize is that transportation might be an issue for some people to get to the mass vaccine sites,” Cahill said. “So we’re trying to give people every opportunity to make this as convenient as possible.”

Troy Shinn covers healthcare, natural resources and the Linn County government. He can be reached at 541-812-6114 or troy.shinn@lee.net. He can be found on Twitter at @troydshinn. 

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