LA GRANDE — In the United States, roughly half of the population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, an important step toward herd immunity.
But Union County is facing a different situation, with only 36% of residents fully vaccinated — the fifth lowest rate in Oregon, making experts question whether Union County will reach herd immunity.
“Of course it is possible Union County may not reach 70%,” Carrie Brogoitti, Union County public health administrator, said. “Predicting whether or not we will get there is extremely difficult.”
To achieve 70%, Union County must vaccinate 9,434 more residents. However, vaccine efforts in recent weeks have slowed to a crawl.
In the first three weeks of July, only 350 Union County residents received their final dose, compared to nearly 1,000 in June and 2,330 in March, when the vaccine became widely available.
According to a study published by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention in May, rural areas across the nation are reporting lower vaccination rates than urban areas, and Oregon is no exception. Out of 36 counties in the state, the five with the lowest vaccination rates are in the bottom 16 when ranked by population.
However, this trend is not necessarily due to rural inaccessibility — vaccines have been widely available in Union County to any adult for several months, but efforts to encourage residents to get vaccinated have had meager results.
“(Public health) is working to provide information that helps people make the best decision for themselves, and we are making the vaccine available to people when they do decide to get the vaccine,” Brogoitti said.
The Center for Human Development hosted a vaccine clinic on July 13 in Elgin, which had to be shut down within the first hour due to public disruption, according to Jared Rogers, treasurer of the Elgin Lions Club, which was hosting a lottery event at the clinic.
“It wasn’t a success. We got two people vaccinated and then a man came in and made a big disruption, so CHD packed their things up and left,” Rogers said. “I’ve talked with people who say the vaccine has been pushed on too fast, or some have their conspiracy theories, but these people haven’t done the research. They aren’t experts.”
Numerous studies have shown that all of the vaccines authorized for emergency use are safe and highly effective against COVID-19.
The overwhelming majority of scientists and health care professionals have encouraged residents to get vaccinated, but the science hasn’t been enough to push more people to vaccine clinics in Union County.
Meanwhile, the state doesn’t seem to have a plan to help.
“We are moving to a more localized, traditional approach,” Gov. Kate Brown said in a July 20 press conference. “We’re relying on our local public health authorities and their strong partners in the medical community to help continue to get information and vaccination efforts out to community members, as well as to tackle the response to the virus.”
Dr. Bill Messer, a professor in the department of molecular microbiology and immunology at Oregon Health and Science University, said one reason rural areas are seeing lower vaccination rates is herd mentality.
“We have to remember that the vaccination settings are not uniform across the county, town, state,” he said. “The probability is high that unvaccinated communities also represent socially connected and social network communities, like churches or other social or political organizations.”
And with Oregon lifting statewide COVID-19 restrictions on June 30, combined with new — and more transmissible — variants of the virus being reported, the county’s low vaccination rate might lead to a large outbreak.
Union County reported nine new COVID-19 cases on July 19, the highest one-day count since early March.
“We are concerned about the impact the variants could have on disease transmission and severity of cases, particularly given the lower vaccination rate in our county and counties in our region,” Brogoitti said. “These variants could lead to quick changes in the situation in our county and could lead to outbreaks or severe outcomes that we would like to avoid.”