Unlike some rural counties across the United States, Columbia County isn’t struggling to fill vaccine appointments.

“The demand [for the vaccine] is there,” Columbia County Public Health Director Michael Paul said.

But like many of those rural counties, Columbia is seeing urban residents travel into the county seeking vaccines.

Vaccinations

As Oregon’s urban residents seek COVID-19 vaccinations in rural areas, like Columbia County, the county is prioritizing local residents first for the vaccinations.

“We’re right next to an urban county, and some of those people are hunting for vaccines and willing to drive outside of the metro area for a vaccination,” Paul said.

Paul’s observation highlights a phenomenon occurring nationwide: urban city residents who are struggling to find vaccines in their home cities have found success getting vaccinated in neighboring counties that are more rural and, in some cases, more conservative.

This aligns with several factors. Polling has shown that Republican-aligned areas of the nation are far more likely to combat vaccine hesitancy. A PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll from this month found that 30 percent of people surveyed stated that, if offered the COVID-19 vaccine, they would not take it. Of those who stated they would reject the vaccine, 41 percent identified as Republican, and 36 percent lived in rural areas.

Since vaccines are distributed by county population, this suggests that some right-leaning counties could potentially have a greater surplus of vaccines than more liberal counties—leading urban residents to seek vaccination in their neighboring rural counties. This is only augmented by states opening up vaccination to all adult residents.

However, Columbia residents don’t appear to be hesitant about getting the vaccine.

“We haven’t reached a point where we’re not filling appointments, and we haven’t hit a point where we have had vaccines sitting on the shelves” Paul said, speaking of other counties that have experienced vaccine expiration as a result of residents not seeking vaccination.

“The major issue has been that we’re not exactly sure how many doses we’re going to get, so we don’t know how many appointments to make, Paul said, "But once we get those doses, we’ve been able to fill those appointments quickly.”

And while Multnomah and Washington county residents may be eager to seek vaccination in rural counties like Columbia, Columbia County’s vaccine interest form identifies people with local addresses and prioritizes scheduling their appointments before scheduling out-of-county residents. In the reverse, Paul said some Columbia County residents have also traveled outside the county for vaccination.

“We’re not too concerned with people coming from other counties to Columbia County for vaccination because we have people going to their counties as well,” Paul said.

As long as vaccine doses continue to be in high demand and low(er) availability in Columbia County, Paul said the priority for health officials will be to ensure accessibility and convenience for residents — addressing vaccine hesitancy and vaccine site capacity comes later. Out of the approximate 42,000 adults over 18 in Columbia County, only about a quarter have been vaccinated, according to Paul. On Monday, April 19, all Oregonians 16 and over will be eligible to sign up for a vaccine.

“However that doesn’t mean everyone will be able to get an appointment on Monday.," Paul cautioned. "We aren’t going to have enough vaccines on Monday to make an appointment for everyone who is eligible."

On Monday, alongside eligibility opening up, all Oregon state counties’ risk levels will be reassessed. During the last COVID-19 county risk level assessment performed by the state, Columbia County qualified for extreme risk but was given a two-week caution period to remain at moderate risk. Despite climbing COVID-19 case rates, Paul said the county likely won’t be assessed as extreme risk during the next evaluation, due to the governor’s new metric guidelines.

Under the new state metric, counties must meet a criteria of hospital occupancy and case rate increase—at least 300 hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 positive patients and a 15 percent increase in the seven-day average over the past week. “We’re still a ways from there,” Paul said. For reference, only 177 hospital beds were filled by COVID-19 positive patients in Columbia County as of April 14.

Vaccination information

Vaccinations are available at most WalMart, Walgreens, Safeway, and other such retail locations as well as selected medical outlets, including the the OHSU Clinic in Scappoose. Drive-through clinics are also established in the Portland metro area. Appointments are necessary. To learn about appointment details and find a location near you, visit the Oregon Health Authority website.

For Columbia County residents that cannot seek vaccinations, the county is operating an in-home vaccination program. For more information, call Columbia County Public Health, at 503-397-7247.

Follow daily pandemic updates here with in-depth reports in the Wednesday print editions of the Chronicle.

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