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SALEM, Ore. — Members of the Oregon National Guard are now deployed at the Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem, aiding with an effort to speed up COVID-19 vaccinations that is likely to expand to other sites around the state over the next several months.
Guardsmen joined Salem Health staff at the fairgrounds on Tuesday, charged with assisting in vaccine distribution. The initial effort involves more that 40 medical personnel from the Guard.
Salem Health began the mass vaccination effort just over a week prior. Since January 7, the National Guard reports that just over 8,500 vaccinations were administered — jumping to more than 10,000 after Guardsmen arrived.
Salem Health Hospitals and Clinics led the push to establish a vaccine distribution site after realizing that they would not be able to vaccinate enough people under the former, internal system. The State Fairgrounds site is the first of its kind in the state.
“We are the only mass vaccination clinic set up,” said Cheryl Nester Wolfe, President and CEO of the medical provider. “We have somewhere around 50,000 people to vaccinate in Marion County alone.”
Wolfe and her team chose the Oregon State Fairgrounds due to current busing route access, the central location for Marion County residents, the large building and plentiful parking. It was also established as an alternative hospital location in March of 2020 when the state's COVID-19 response got underway.
Amie Wittenberg, Director of the Emergency Department, Trauma and Psychiatric Services at Salem Hospital and the Operations Section Chief for the vaccination response, brought her team to the site in order to set up safety and health protocols once the plan was in place.
“Once we heard the site location was confirmed, we came down to the building to see what tools we had,” said Wittenberg. “We started dreaming up our plan starting with the essentials: screening to ensure COVID safety measures were in place, a registration area, a vaccination prep station, a vaccination station, and finally, a process to identify post vaccination monitoring.”
Salem Health staff working on vaccinations at the Fairgrounds are still juggling their hospital jobs in addition, and the Guard's presence has helped to take on some of the workload. Governor Kate Brown announced the activation of Guard resources on January 8, and it came as a relief for Salem Health.
“We need Guardsmen to help with giving vaccinations, we need help with security and parking, we need everything,” said Wolfe. “When I heard the Governor announce the Guard was coming to help, it was just a blessing.”
Guardsmen arrived at the Fairgrounds on the morning of January 12. By noon, they were ready to begin preparing and giving vaccinations, processing individuals on the electronic medical record system, monitoring the post vaccination area, monitoring controlled entry and exit points, and assisting with vehicle and foot traffic control.
“When we heard there was a potential to partner with the Guard and to actually work together… it’s a once in a life time opportunity,” said Wittenberg. “Since February, we have worked and served at all different levels. It’s been a lot. To have the Guard’s partnership, you can’t put a price on it.”
The Oregon National Guard has been helping with PPE distribution in the state's pandemic response since March of 2020.