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Latino Network blasts state for failing to ensure access to COVID-19 vaccine

Oregon’s premier Latino advocacy group put state officials on blast Wednesday for what it described as a state failure to get coronavirus vaccines to the people the group represents.

The Latino Network will convene at least six speakers Thursday to outline accusations that officials have failed to tear down barriers to COVID-19 vaccinations for the Latinx community.

“Leaders in our community have made sustained efforts to engage with the state to develop an implementation strategy to get our people vaccinated,” spokeswoman Martina Bialek said in a news release Wednesday. “These efforts have been largely rebuffed.”

About 6% of administered COVID-19 vaccine doses have gone to people who identify as Hispanic, according to Oregon data. The state’s Latino population, meanwhile, is around 13%.

The Latino Network outlined four proposals that it will presumably address in more detail Thursday.

The Network asked that federal, state and local health officials acknowledge the existing vaccination approach has failed the Latinx community; proposed a Spanish-language vaccine registration hotline; asked health officials to partner up with community groups to hold vaccine events in “culturally specific locations”; and asked that those community groups be paid to staff Latinx-focused clinics themselves.

But in a nearly four-page response to the Network’s announcement, the Oregon Health Authority outlined a long list of work it has done on its own and in partnership with community groups to help ensure Latinos get vaccinated.

That includes $45 million in grants the health authority said it has pumped into community-based groups, the largest portion of which have gone to groups serving Latinos, including the Latino Network itself.

The agency also said it has paid for numerous social media campaigns, supported dozens of Latino-focused clinics around the state and has been allocating thousands of doses of the vaccine a week to health care groups authorized to vaccinate all their patients, not just those eligible under state guidelines, including one health care network whose more than 50,000 patients are majority Latino.

“We continue to re-evaluate our vaccine allocations to find ways to address the unmet vaccination needs of communities of color who’ve borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the health authority said in a written statement. “We welcome input from the community, and we look forward to continuing to work with organizations and health systems on the ground in every corner of the state.”

The Oregon Health Authority has on multiple occasions acknowledged that Latinos are getting vaccinated at rates out of step with the rest of the population.

A few weeks ago, at least some of that disparity was attributed to the age distributions among the groups first eligible for shots. After health care workers, seniors in long-term care and teachers, the state prioritized people 65 and older – a demographic Latinos hardly represent at all. About 3% of Oregonians over 65 are Latino or Latina, health authority director Patrick Allen said in March.

Allen previously said he was hopeful that opening eligibility to farm workers would help get shots into Latinos’ arms. That category of people became eligible for shots March 29.

More than two weeks later, Allen does not appear to be happy with the state’s progress.

“We’re significantly below where we need to be with the Latino, Latina population, but making progress in beginning to close those gaps,” Allen told lawmakers Thursday at a legislative hearing.

For the Latino Network, broadening eligibility does not appear to have been a silver bullet, either.

“While vaccination efforts are taking place across Oregon, members of the Latinx community have been at the sidelines of the state’s vaccination campaign,” Bialek wrote. “Many Latinos in Oregon continue to experience a number of systemic barriers and inequities that have prevented them from getting the much-needed COVID-19 vaccine.”

— Fedor Zarkhin

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