Vaccine Voices: Promoting equitable access at Celilo Village

“Our Longhouse is a place of worship, and we haven’t been able to use it during COVID,” says Karen Whitford, a Tribal Elder who lives 12 miles east of the Dalles in Celilo Village. On Jan. 27, after a ceremonial prayer, Whitford and 103 Tribal members from throughout the Columbia River Gorge received first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Longhouse.

It was a vaccination event that required collaboration between two states, four counties, the Intertribal Fish Commission, social service agencies and transportation partners. Leading the effort was one of the Oregon Health Authority’s partners, One Community Health (OCH), based in Hood River and The Dalles.  

“We advance health and social justice to all in our community regardless of the ability to pay,” says CEO Max Janasik. They offer medical, behavioral health and dental services, as well as education and outreach to seasonal farm workers, Tribal members and others.

Gladys Rivera, preventative health manager, led the effort to vaccinate Tribal members who would have struggled to access vaccines. Many live at Tribal fishing sites, often hours away from the nearest Indian Health Services clinic, with limited or no access to running water, electricity, cell phones or other basic needs.

OCH sent three community health workers and a nurse who lives in one of the villages to 16 sites along the Columbia River to register Tribal members. This meant knocking door-to-door, gathering people’s information, scheduling an appointment and arranging transportation. Over four days they registered 104 Tribal members.

“That is what equitable access should look like,” Rivera says. “We can’t expect people to come to us. We need to go to them. My favorite part has been establishing that rapport and trust. To be invited to their home and provide that service there hasn’t happened before.” 

“We like to make the Longhouse useful,” says Whitford. She and many other Tribal members have now had second doses. She lost her nephew to COVID-19 and her husband is still suffering its aftereffects. That day, watching people arrive in their cars to be vaccinated, she says, “It was happy heartbreak, seeing who was alive and who wasn’t.” She is still being very cautious, but now, she says, “I feel safe.”  

This article first appeared in the March 4, 2021 issue of Oregon Coronavirus Update.