Rural Oregon fire department steps up to provide vaccine so no one gets left behind

The Mist-Birkenfeld Rural Fire Protection District (RFPD) provides fire, emergency, home health and ambulance services to 1,388 people who live in 165 square miles of Columbia and Clatsop counties. For the last few months, they have also been bringing COVID-19 vaccines to people in this rural area, many of whom do not have access to the internet or cell phone service.

Hailey Palmore and Larry Boxman pose with the Moderna vaccine.

“Out here, we don’t have any hospitals, clinics, physician offices or any medical support at all. The only medical comes from the Fire Service and the EMS services,” says paramedic Larry Boxman who is the Emergency Medical Services Division Chief at the Mist-Birkenfeld RFPD.

So far, they have vaccinated 2,011 people, with hundreds more scheduled in the coming weeks. That’s way more than the number who live in the district. Their vaccination effort has grown to include regular clinics in the neighboring communities of Vernonia, Clatskanie and Jewell, as well as the original clinic at the Mist-Birkenfeld fire station. They also take vaccines to people who are homebound.

Daily clinic operations are run on average, by about six people – mostly volunteers from the area, says Sue Mohnkern, who brings her expertise to the program after retiring as Washington County’s Public Health Preparedness Program Supervisor after 15 years. When people come in for their shot, she says, “they light up because they see somebody they know.”

Hailey Palmore, Director of Public Health Services for Mist-Birkenfeld, adds that this kind of trust means that “We are now seeing people in their 80s finally coming through the clinics because they know enough people who have got the vaccine, and they feel ready and safe enough to get it.”

The home visit vaccination program fits neatly into the district’s innovative Community Health Integrated Paramedicine Program: Home health (post-surgery care and more) provided by the fire service. “Having that program in place,” says Boxman, “helped us get the vaccine to places it wouldn’t otherwise have got to.”

Sometimes in public health, says Palmore, its important to figure out how to get the largest number of people taken care of very quickly, but sometimes it’s important to go one by one. “Although home visits make up a small percentage of the vaccinations we’ve done, those people may be the most medically fragile that we see. Sometimes we drive way up into the woods to get to someone’s house.”

The vaccine program’s unofficial motto?  No one gets left behind. 

If you’ve recently been vaccinated and lost your vaccination card:

  • Contact the clinic where you got your vaccine
  • Ask your health care provider for a record
  • Follow the instructions on the ALERT IIS page
  • Call 211 for help in languages other than English