Weekly update: Frustrations over COVID-19 vaccination rates rise among Walla Walla, Umatilla county officials

Ben Hickman signs in for his second vaccine Thursday, April 15, 2021, at the first vaccine clinic in Walla Walla County for which anyone over the age of 16 was eligible.

Local county commissioners and health officials on both sides of the Washington-Oregon border expressed frustration over the current COVID-19 picture at weekly meetings on Monday, May 24.

At the Walla Walla County Commissioners meeting, members Greg Tompkins, Todd Kimball and Jennifer Mayberry had concerns about the perception of COVID-19 vaccinations.

The Department of Community Health facilitated 10 mobile vaccination events last week, getting more than 200 shots in arms, Administrative Support Supervisor Nancy Wenzel told commissioners, noting that at a vaccination rate of not quite 50%, the county has work to do to reach the 70% of residents who have had at least one dose of vaccine Washingtonian state officials are looking for.

“If people want a shot, we want to help them get a shot,” said Nikki Sharp, manager for the county’s Healthy Communities program.

Commission chair Greg Tompkins queried the women about state-offered shot incentives and rumors of a vaccine passport.

“Which I would be dead set against,” Tompkins said.

Wenzel responded that while she does not have information about such passports, she knows there is talk of small incentives for vaccinations, such as free scoops of ice cream for the good behavior of getting vaccinated.

“So it’s good behavior if you get the vaccine?” Tompkins said.

“What if you are allergic to it?”

Sharp thanked Tompkins for asking the question, emphasizing it’s important to have conversations that don’t penalize people for their perspective.

The goal of herd immunity — generally considered to be in play when a large portion of a population is vaccinated against a communicable disease — is that people who cannot get vaccinated are still safe from the coronavirus, Sharp responded.

“We have to be willing to listen to all perspectives,” she said.

Tompkins said he hopes that the case and that people are not being made to feel bad for not getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We are creating a divide in this community,” he added.

Kimball recounted someone’s experience of being accepted to Washington State University but only if he or she was vaccinated.

“I have a real problem with that, it is a personal choice,” he said, adding as much as he wants everyone to get vaccinated, he is struggling with those kinds of mandates.

That’s where conversations can be helpful, before getting to someone’s “yes” or “no,” Wenzel said.

“They shouldn’t have to give a reason why, it’s none of our business,” Kimball responded, calling such a conversation inappropriate and counter to rules about asking a person for a medical history.

As well, colleges don’t require students to have flu immunizations, he said.

“They are picking and choosing.”

Mayberry questioned the recent school vaccine clinics, asking health department staff if they are requiring a parent’s signature before vaccinating students under age 18.

There is a lack of information from the school districts about the process coming home to parents, she said.

Sharp pointed out the parental form is available on the county’s website and downloadable by anyone.

“I would add that on your advertisements,” Mayberry said, adding she thinks a notice would calm things down on social media.

Numbers for Walla Walla County, May 18-24:

  • Total COVID-19 cases rose by 28 from 5,119 on May 18 to 5,147 on Monday, May 25.
  • Active cases on Monday totaled 68, up from 54 on May 18; no resident are hospitalized.
  • The local death toll remained at 65 people.
  • 54,584 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been given.

In Umatilla County’s weekly staff meeting, Commission Chair George Murdock again chafed against the difficulty of getting all vaccination records of residents.

“When we were short of vaccine a lot of people went elsewhere,” he said, listing mass vaccination events in Washington and at Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center, at pharmacies and veterans health centers across the state line.

Public health director Joseph Fiumara said while his office has received some information from Walla Walla County, the neighboring health department is equally frustrated at the data gathering process.

Pendleton Round-Up officials attending the meeting asked what the outlook is for the renounced September event.

If the hoped-for 70% vaccination rate demanded by Gov. Kate Brown doesn’t come to fruition, “is Oregon going to keep a lid on it forever?” asked Randy Bracher, Round-Up board president.

Fiumara said Oregon Health Authority will use the state’s overall vaccination rate, rather than that of individual counties, to determine when the 70% rate is reached.

As of Monday morning, the state’s data dashboard indicated about 62% of all Oregonians have been vaccinated; the assumption is the removal of most safety and health restrictions is going forward, Fiumara said.

While the end of June is the target date for that action, there is some vaccination modeling that predicts the required rate could be reached by the middle of next month, he said.

Bracher said Round-Up officials, determined to stay out of political frays, are looking for ways to create a campaign that puts a positive spin on getting vaccinated against COVID-19, a message intended for the regional area.

“That’s a better avenue than cramming it down people’s throats,” he said.

Fiumara agreed, saying there’s a lot of research suggesting negative messaging doesn’t change minds, but positive wording can.

Umatilla County’s public health officer, Dr. Jonathan Hitzman, pointed out that by the end of July, health officials will have a good sense of what September is going to look like.

Numbers for Umatilla County, May 18-24:

  • Total COVID-19 cases rose by 66, from 8,261 on May 18 to 8,327; there were no affiliated hospitalizations reported during the week.
  • The death toll is 86 people.
  • 21,839 residents have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine: 2,059 in Milton-Freewater, 390 in Athena and 257 in Weston.

Numbers for Columbia County, May 18-24:

  • There are six active cases, up from four on May 18.
  • 125 total cases, up from 119.
  • Columbia County Public Health is reporting five total deaths; Washington state Department of Health is reporting four. County officials have not yet clarified the disparity.
  • 3,032 vaccine doses have been given.
  • 900 new cases of COVID-19; 429,499 total cases.
  • Seven new deaths, 5,709 total deaths.
  • 284 new cases of COVID-19; 198,972 total cases.
  • Two new deaths; 2,624 total.

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Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.