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Oregon National Guard medics assist at Salem mass vaccination site

Oregon National Guard Salem vaccination 113-1
Major Heather Bashor, Oregon Military Department Public Affairs
Oregon National Guard Spc. Toby SeWell assigned to the Oregon Army National Guard Medical Command, administers the COVID-19 vaccination to a Salem resident at the Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem on Wednesday

Gov. Brown visits fairgrounds, says partnerships in the works elsewhere

SALEM, Ore. (KTVZ) -- Oregon National Guardsmen joined Salem Health at the Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem on Tuesday to assist them with their efforts to distribute the COVID-19 vaccination to Oregonians.

More than 40 medical personnel initially activated to directly support Salem Health operations.

Just over a week ago, Salem Health set up their distribution plan and began administering vaccinations to the public. Since last Thursday, over 8,500 vaccinations have been administered; with the help of the National Guard on Tuesday, the site reached over 10,000 vaccinations.

Upon realizing the site would be unable to vaccinate enough people under the current system, Salem Health Hospitals and Clinics President and CEO Cheryl Nester Wolfe initiated the plan to establish a separate vaccination distribution site. Her forward thinking led to the first COVID-19 vaccination distribution site of its kind in the state of Oregon.

“We are the only mass vaccination clinic set up,” stated Wolfe. “We have somewhere around 50,000 people to vaccinate in Marion County alone.”

The Oregon State Fairgrounds was designated as the logical choice by Wolfe and her team due to current busing route access, the centralized location for Marion County and Salem residents, as well as the large building and available parking.

The established infrastructure of the State Fairgrounds as an alternative hospital location was originally established in March of 2020 at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak.

Once aware of Salem Health’s plan to set up a vaccination distribution site at the State Fairgrounds, Amie Wittenberg, Director of the Emergency Department, Trauma and Psychiatric Services at Salem Hospital and the Operations Section Chief for the vaccination response, arrived with her team to ensure all necessary safety precautions and health protocols were followed.  

“Once we heard the site location was confirmed, we came down to the building to see what tools we had,” stated 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.”

The Salem Health staff working to vaccinate Oregonians at the State Fairgrounds continues to manage their hospital jobs as well as the vaccination site. The impact and workload on the hospital dating back to last March and the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic has been significant.

“We are planning on being here up to six months,” stated Wittenberg. “Everyone’s dug in to volunteer and work extra to serve, but we need to preserve our employees and ensure we have the ability to facilitate at the hospital and clinic level.” 

On Jan. 8, Oregon Governor Kate Brown announced the activation of the Oregon National Guard to assist with the distribution of the COVID-19 Vaccination. The news of Guard activation to assist with vaccinations was a relief for Salem Health.

“We need Guardsmen to help with giving vaccinations, we need help with security and parking -- we need everything,” stated Nester Wolfe. “When I heard the governor announce the Guard was coming to help, it was just a blessing.”

Oregon Guardsmen arrived at the State Fairgrounds on Tuesday morning and began their onboarding process to integrate with Salem Health as soon as possible. By noon, Citizen-Soldiers and Airmen were 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,” expressed 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.”

Since March 2020, Oregon National Guardsmen have been activated to support the state’s COVID-19 Pandemic response, distribute PPE throughout the state, assisted with the largest wildfire season on record, and to protect lives and property during civil disturbances.

Brown on Wednesday visited Salem Health's vaccination clinic at the Oregon State Fairgrounds, where she visited with Oregon National Guard members who are administering vaccines at the clinic, spoke with community members in the 1a vaccination group who were attending the clinic, and met with officials from Salem Health.

The governor was joined by Adjutant General Michael Stencel, Salem Health President and CEO Cheryl Wolfe, and Salem Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ralph Yates.

"Today I had the opportunity to visit with Jason, a hospice care worker who received a COVID-19 vaccine administered by Private First Class Juan Rojas," Brown said. "It's truly overwhelming. As a hospice worker, not only does Jason make people feel more comfortable as they're nearing the end of their lives, he also provides massage therapy for cancer patients. With this vaccination, we're going to make sure Jason can continue this important and honorable work.

"I am very proud of the leadership of Salem Health, who stood up this vaccination clinic on their own, and who are vaccinating hundreds of people a day. They also have a great partner with the Oregon National Guard, who are providing vaccination support. We are working to develop more partnerships like this one — in communities large and small across the state — to get Oregonians vaccinated as quickly as possible."

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