Doing it together: longtime history of community partnerships in the gorge

Right along one of the main streets into town and up to the orchards in The Dalles is St. Mary’s Academy. If you’ve lived in Wasco County for any amount of time, you know the location. The school has been a fixture in the community for more than a century, but now the school’s parking lot has transformed into a fixture of its own. The lot has become the foremost COVID-19 vaccine location for Wasco County residents and those who come to the area to work during the farming season.

Thirty staff members from around the country are working at the mobile vaccine unit, jointly run by the North Central Public Health District (NCPHD), the Oregon Health Authority, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and One Community Health. Spanish translators are also on site.

A staff member at the vaccine unit administers a vaccine.

“It’s a great partnership and kind of a ‘one stop shop,’ that everyone in the community can take advantage of as well as hosting and being able to welcome the migrant workers. This clinic is open six days a week with extended hours to 6 p.m., making it convenient for people getting out of work. We also have some small mobile clinics that are going out through public health to serve very specific populations,” said Shellie Campbell, NCPHD Director.

NCPHD is the only three-county local health department in Oregon serving Wasco, Sherman and Gilliam Counties.

Just like every local public health authority right now, NCPHD has had to get creative on how they’re getting shots into arms. Staff members are working with community partners like Oregon Child Development Coalition (OCDC) which is helping serve the migrant families and children that come in.

Staff help out at the mobile vaccine unit.

“We’ve seen some farms that have brought in vans or buses with staff to be able to provide that opportunity to their employees. So there have been some really large groups that have come through. In our community, the majority of the farm workers that we see are from California temporarily here for the cherry harvest. Most growers are encouraging vaccinations and making that opportunity available by telling workers about this clinic and by offering transportation – it just makes it that much easier to come in and receive a vaccine,” said Jen Heredia, OCDC Program Director for Hood River and Wasco Counties.

Campbell says in Wasco County, up to 6,000 migrant workers and their families come through to work.

“We really do think this is the right place for the clinic to be right now. We’re focusing on raising the percentage of our entire population of Wasco County residents vaccinated and we know that it’s important to get the migrant families coming through vaccinated as well to keep them safe. As we all know, this virus spreads and we need to make sure that our whole community and that the economics of the community are supported by getting people – all people vaccinated.”

Everyone on site would agree, the goal has been removing barriers and making it as easy as possible to get a vaccination. And, since the mobile unit showed up, there has been a sizable increase in vaccination rates. Staffers at the mobile vaccine unit have been administering an average of 70 vaccines a day to people in the Columbia River Gorge community. Heredia credits local relationships, which have long been closely connected.

“It’s not just about us, you know. It’s about the kids that we’re taking care of. It’s about their parents. It’s for my daughter. It’s about her grandparents. I think it’s just been inspirational to me to see how many people are just ready and willing. They say, ‘let me do my part, give me my vaccine and how can I help out my community?’ And this really is a community that is all about helping each other out, with or without COVID. We’ve always had incredibly strong community partnerships. We do everything together. We planned this program with all our partners, just like we planned this clinic with all our partners. That gets us miles further down the road than we would if any of us were trying to do this work by ourselves.”

You can watch a video about the mobile vaccine unit below.