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Linn County figuring out how to ramp up mass COVID-19 vaccines ahead of omicron

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COVID-19 vaccine stations were set up in a horseshoe shape inside the Willamette Events center at the Linn County Fairgrounds earlier this year. Indoor mass vaccination clinics are likely returning to the fairgrounds in response to concerns over the omicron variant.  

Mass vaccination clinics are coming back to Linn County, as commissioners said the public needs to prepare for an expected surge in COVID-19 caseloads brought on by the omicron variant.

That was the big topic of discussion at the Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 21. The need to get more Linn County residents fully vaccinated and boosted in time to combat the new strain of SARS-CoV-2 was put into stark focus by the county’s communicable diseases expert, Dr. William Muth.

“While it may be a less lethal strain, the problem is that it’s clearly more transmissible,” Muth told commissioners over the phone. “Maybe there’s a smaller proportion of cases that will lead to serious illness or hospitalization … but a smaller proportion of a much bigger number could still very much overwhelm the health care systems.”

While he recommended getting more citizens to receive booster doses of a coronavirus vaccine, he noted that “the real hurdle is the reluctance of people to be immunized.”

He also reaffirmed science that shows how mask-wearing and social distancing reduces transmission.

“Strategies that are crucial are to have persons get boosted … and also wearing masks indoors,” he said. “This is a bit of a broken record at this point, but this is something that can be done and that we know works.”

One member of the audience at Tuesday’s board meeting was unmasked throughout the proceedings. No one addressed this during the lengthy conversation.

County health officials said they have the equipment and volunteers ready to go to ramp up mass sites again, and it really falls to the public sector to address such high vaccine demand.

“Samaritan (Health Services) has pretty robust testing, … but they don’t have the ability to do vaccines. They are already finding it difficult to have the personnel to staff that,” Public Health Director Todd Noble said. “There is a big demand and pharmacies (and hospitals) can’t do it.”

While Linn County Public Health has continued to roll out its mobile vaccine van to various businesses and residences in recent months, Noble said, if the goal is to flatten the curve of a predicted new wave of cases, then those efforts need to intensify.

“Over the last six weeks, we have been doing mobile clinics a couple times a day,” he said. “The problem with that is we can only do about 1,000 doses a week, which is not sufficient. Come January, we need space.”

The problem, as commissioners framed it, is that the obvious site for vaccines to be administered — the fair and expo center in Albany — is now booked for various local events.

However, Randy Porter, Linn County Fair & Expo director, said it wasn’t an issue if the county needed to use the fairgrounds buildings. He and his staff found several dates in both January and February that would work to hold clinics.

“We’ve got a stretch in January of about two weeks, and about the same in February,” Porter said. “We’re also giving them the option of having a tent set up outside.”

Noble said that the public health division has heaters and power generators on-hand for an outdoor clinic should the county plan on offering those too.

Commissioners said residents have been inquiring about vaccination sites.  

“I’m so glad this conversation has come up today,” Commissioner Sherrie Sprenger said. “I had a constituent come up to me last night and ask about vaccination clinics. I see it as a pretty logical low-hanging fruit solution that even if the fairgrounds is booked every weekend, the parking lot’s got to be available … at least three if not four days of the week.”

Troy Shinn covers healthcare, natural resources and Linn County government. He can be reached at 541-812-6114 or troy.shinn@lee.net. He can be found on Twitter at @troydshinn. 

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