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COVID-19 vaccinations reaching wider pool in Jackson County

The community is working together to vaccinate a broader swath of at-risk health care workers and first responders after the state opened up COVID-19 vaccinations to more categories of people this week.

The effort will speed up the tiered vaccination process, bringing the day closer when the general population can get the long-awaited shots.

“We want to get vaccinations out as quickly as possible. The last thing we want is vaccine sitting in freezers,” said Dr. Jim Shames, medical director for Jackson County Public Health.

He said the public health department, local hospitals, clinics and other parts of the local health care community have been coordinating on the vaccination rollout.

Asante and Providence hospital workers received the first COVID-19 shots in the Rogue Valley Dec. 18 as the Oregon Health Authority prioritized at-risk hospital staff plus residents and staff of nursing homes.

But that approach left out other front-line health care workers at places like La Clinica.

La Clinica has been operating a respiratory triage clinic for COVID-19 testing and screening since March. Health care workers in other La Clinica clinics around the valley also face potential COVID-19 exposure.

La Clinica expected to receive dozens of vaccinations for staff this week but instead received 700 after the state announced an expansion of who could get the shots first, La Clinica Director of Nursing Becky Sherman said Thursday.

Community clinic workers, private practice doctors, dentists, home health care workers, medical transport workers and others are now among those who can get vaccinated right away.

La Clinica Registered Nurse Sara Yalon has been working in La Clinica’s respiratory triage clinic in Medford since the spring of 2020.

She was the first La Clinica worker to get a vaccine Tuesday. Her co-workers gathered around to watch and celebrate.

“I’ve been waiting for a vaccine to be available, I feel like, since day one,” Yalon said. “I’m so happy they’re here. It was a magical moment, and I almost started crying. I got the first vaccination of anyone at La Clinica and everyone cheered afterward. Everyone was so excited.”

Yalon dons full protective gear at work, including a face mask, face shield and medical gown. She hasn’t caught COVID-19 or even a cold. But she did become extra careful and hyper-aware. A single sneeze could start her wondering if she had COVID-19.

Still, Yalon said she’s glad she’s been working in the respiratory triage clinic.

“It’s been a really fantastic experience being able to provide that service to the community and people who really need it. It’s helping in a really direct way,” she said.

Also this week, hospitals coordinated to vaccinate workers from Mercy Flights, Ashland Fire & Rescue, Jackson County Fire Districts No. 3 and 5 and other first-responder agencies, said Holly Nickerson, Asante vice president of quality and patient safety.

She said Asante jumped at the chance to help after the state opened up vaccinations to more people.

“We thought, ‘Absolutely. We’re in. We want to support the community,’” Nickerson said.

She said the vaccination rollout at Asante is going well. Asante saw a dip in its vaccination allocation from the state last week, but the Oregon Health Authority allocated more so Asante could carry out scheduled vaccinations.

Jackson County Public Health received vaccinations and is helping to vaccinate others, including Valley Immediate Care staff and local law enforcement, Shames said.

“Some haven’t received their own yet, and we’re working to share with those who need it,” he said of some local medical providers.

Valley Immediate Care Physician Assistant Evan Xanthos was vaccinated Wednesday. He said he’s seen firsthand how severe COVID-19 can be.

“There is a lot of good research that backs the efficacy of the vaccine. We all have to do our part to try and regain some normalcy in this world, and this is one step closer toward doing that and protecting our loved ones,” Xanthos said.

Shames said a number of people are hesitant to get the vaccine. That could affect the vaccine rollout strategy.

“I would like to assure the public that coronavirus is real, it’s serious and it spreads very quickly. The vaccine is safe and effective. I can’t wait to get mine. I encourage the public to get vaccinated,” Shames said.

Sherman, the director of nursing at La Clinica, said humans aren’t very good at judging risk.

The risk of dying or experiencing serious health complications from COVID-19 is about one in 100 cases, she said. The risk of having an adverse reaction to vaccination is about one in 100,000, she said.

Some people around the world, especially those who are prone to severe allergic reactions, have had severe allergic reactions to COVID-19 vaccinations.

Sherman said no one at La Clinica has had a severe allergic reaction.

She said everyday activities like driving are more dangerous than vaccinations.

“You are more at risk going out and getting in your car today,” Sherman said.

If people want normal life to return — including kids going back to school and restaurants being able to offer indoor dining — they can help by getting vaccinated, she said.

Under Oregon’s tiered approach to the vaccine rollout, people involved in all types of health care, including nursing home care and ambulance transport, get the shots first.

The next phase will reach essential workers, such as teachers and bus drivers.

The third phase is for people 65 and older and those with underlying medical conditions.

The general population is last.

Sherman said La Clinica is preparing for the day when it can start vaccinating wider pools of people. It’s ordering tents for outdoor vaccination events, getting supplies and stockpiling needles.

“Patients are very anxious to get vaccinated. They’re calling all the time and asking about it,” she said.

No one yet knows exactly when Oregon will reach the various vaccination tiers, but the process will take months.

In the meantime, public health officials are urging people to wear masks, physically distance and wash their hands in order to curb infections and deaths.

“Hang in there. We are so close,” Sherman said. “A lot of people are working to get us through the first tier as fast as we possibly can.”

As of Thursday, Oregon had vaccinated more than 65,000 people, and Jackson County had vaccinated just over 3,000 people, according to OHA data.

People need two shots spread out over several weeks to get the maximum effect. Trials show the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines now being used in Oregon are more than 94% effective after both doses.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

La Clinica Medical Assistant Matt Rorke gets a COVID-19 vaccine from La Clinica Nursing Director Becky Sherman. Photo courtesy of La Clinica