On a hazy summer day in 2021, the crew of a cargo ship off the coast of Oregon had an unlikely visitor.
Sandy Le, a Portland pharmacist, approached in a small boat. Through whipping winds she climbed aboard, onto the gangway, with a supply of COVID-19 vaccines in tow. The people on board needed to be vaccinated.
The adventure was one of many in Sandy’s effort to vaccinate as many people as possible against COVID-19.
Based out of her tiny pharmacy tucked behind the Trader Joe’s in northeast Portland, Sandy, 45, and her team have administered more COVID-19 vaccines than any other pharmacy in Oregon.
It should come as no surprise that Sandy is Oregon’s Immunization Champion. The award is given jointly by the Association of Immunization Managers (AIM) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it honors individuals who go above and beyond to promote immunizations in their communities.
Sandy came to the United States in 1988 as a refugee from Vietnam, settling with family in Hawaii. During her guardian’s battle with cancer, Sandy was inspired to enter the health care field. Noticing a pharmacy at the entrance of the hospital, she saw a good fit for her interests.
After graduating from high school, Sandy moved to Oregon and spent the next decade in school — taking prerequisite courses, finishing her undergraduate studies and eventually graduating from Oregon State University with her Doctorate in Pharmacy.
Sandy and her husband, Thanh Le, both pharmacists, began their journey to LeCare Pharmacy in March 2020, signing a contract for the space right after the COVID-19 pandemic kicked into high gear. LeCare officially opened its doors in Feb. 2021, at a time of great uncertainty for small businesses and individuals alike.
“There was a day that I went to church, and I saw so many people who needed vaccines,” recalled Sandy. “I came home and told my husband, ‘So many people need a vaccine, and we have the facilities but no vaccines to give to anybody.”
The COVID-19 vaccine had become available a few months prior to the pharmacy’s opening, but Sandy had to coordinate with Multnomah County to estimate how many doses she should request.
“I asked my husband, ‘How many vaccines do you think we can give?’ and he said ‘Maybe 200 a week.’ But I thought — double that! So the county gave me a two-week supply – that’s 800 doses. We started April 3, 2021, and those 800 doses lasted less than four days.”
LeCare Pharmacy became a hub for walk-in vaccines, with a line that frequently wrapped around the block.
“If someone stepped into our pharmacy, there might have been be a delay, but they got the vaccine no matter what,” Sandy said.
Rumors of the little pharmacy that didn’t require appointments spread fast.
Tim Spencer, a retired environmental engineer living in northeast Portland, heard about LeCare from a friend. He’d received his first shot at a crowded Costco and worried about catching COVID-19 in the process. When he heard about LeCare’s no-fuss process he decided to give it a try for his second shot.
“I was impressed at how relaxed and uneventful my experience was at LeCare,” Spencer said. “I knew I’d return there for my boosters because of their professionalism and friendliness.“
Sandy and her husband also worked closely with the 211 call center, learning about callers who wanted to be vaccinated but faced challenges. The couple frequently visited the homes of patients with mobility issues, administering vaccines and providing a friendly face. They partnered with community groups to help out at clinics and events for those most impacted by COVID-19 including the Vietnamese, Chinese and Latinx communities in and around Portland.
As for their nautical activities, Sandy and Thanh completed more than 40 missions to ships in the waters between Oregon and Washington to vaccinate international seafarers. The majority of crew members come from countries where COVID-19 vaccines were not widely available.
“It was really scary,” Sandy laughs, remembering how nervous she was during those trips out into open water. “You can see that appreciation and happiness in their faces, and that make us so happy.”
To date, LeCare Pharmacy has administered nearly 45,000 COVID-19 vaccines. The most shots they gave in one day was 777.
When asked about receiving the AIM Champion award, Sandy pointed to her team: husband and fellow pharmacists, community organizers and Oregon Health Authority staff.
“I feel like we’re never alone. We want to help, and so many people support us, so that part warms my heart.”