A Latinx person in a car, receiving their vaccination card from an OHSU health care provider.
An OHSU vaccination event organized to increase accessibility for the Latinx community. OHSU/Josh Andersen

Multnomah County submitted its vaccine equity plan Friday, one of the requirements for the county to move to “Lower Risk,” a designation that would allow for less restrictive COVID-19 safety guidelines.

Governor Kate Brown’s new plan requires counties to have administered at least one dose of the COVID vaccine to 65 percent of the adult population and submit an equity plan that details how the county is addressing the racial and ethnic disparity of the vaccine rollout in order to move to the “Lower Risk” level—which allows indoor dining, gyms, and entertainment venues to operate at 50 percent capacity. Under Brown’s current framework, the county would move to lower risk on Friday, May 28 if the equity plan gets approved by the Oregon Health Authority (OHA).

But, in a letter submitted with the vaccine equity plan Friday, the Multnomah County Health Department is asking Governor Kate Brown to move the county to Lower Risk as soon as the equity plan is approved, seeing as Multnomah County reached the 65 percent vaccination benchmark last week. The equity plans are approved on the Tuesday of the week the county is set to reopen, so the county health department is asking for the county to be moved to Lower Risk no later than Wednesday, May 26.

In a press conference Friday, OHA Director Patrick Allen confirmed that the county’s request is under consideration and, if approved, will be applied to other counties in the same position.

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury noted that the three day difference in changing risk levels wouldn’t make a significant difference, but that’s also why the county is asking to change risk levels earlier rather than later.

“[Moving counties on the Friday of each week] is somewhat of an arbitrary decision that was made months ago when they developed this warning movement week,” Kafoury told the Mercury. “I think that with the new direction from the CDC and from the Governor herself about no longer wearing masks if you’re fully vaccinated… I feel like the train has left the station.”

The county received some pushback after declining to submit a vaccine equity plan last week which would have allowed the county to move to Lower Risk this week, according to Kafoury. The county health department received the guidelines for what needed to be included in the vaccine equity plan on Wednesday of last week—three days before the deadline—and announced that they needed more time to develop a considerate equity plan.

“Our job at Multnomah County is to protect every one of our residents, and we know from the data that people of color have not been vaccinated at the same rates as our white counterparts, so it is imperative that we do focus on equity,” Kafoury said.

The equity plan the county submitted Friday takes the existing equity work that the county has been doing since the beginning of the pandemic, like partnering with local cultural organizations to host vaccination events that specifically cater to communities of color, and expands on it. Kafoury says the work now will be making more targeted and intentional efforts to address vaccine inequity, like relocating vaccination sites to make them more accessible to under-vaccinated communities and finding a way to cater to populations who worry that the vaccine’s side effects will make them miss a day of work—something they can’t afford to do.

“There is a large percentage of our population we will be able to vaccinate, it’s just going to be at a slower pace that we’ve done so far,” Kafoury said.

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OHA has set a goal to reach vaccine parity—an equal vaccination rate across all racial and ethnic populations—by August 31. In order to reach that goal, Kafoury says the county can’t be the only ones focused on equity, especially because the county’s public health clinics only receive a small percentage of the Multnomah County’s vaccine supply.

“If we are going to reach that goal that the state has set out—which we definitely are going to do all we can—we need the hospitals, the health care clinics, and the pharmacies to do the same,” Kafoury said.

OHA is expected to announce if Multnomah County’s vaccine equity plan is approved on Tuesday, May 25.