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Oregon National Guard helps ramp up COVID-19 vaccinations

By Oregon National Guard | Jan. 14, 2021

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SALEM, Ore. – More than 40 Oregon National Guardsmen joined Salem Health at the Oregon State Fairgrounds on Jan. 12 to help vaccinate Oregonians against the coronavirus.

Just over a week ago, Salem Health set up its distribution plan and began administering vaccinations to the public, completing more than 8,500 by Jan. 7. After Jan. 12, with the help of the National Guard, that number exceeded 10,000.

Cheryl Nester Wolfe, president and CEO of Salem Health Hospitals and Clinics, decided to set up the separate vaccination site after realizing enough people would not be able to be vaccinated under the previous plan.

“We are the only mass vaccination clinic set up,” said 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 busing route access, the centralized location, the size of the building and parking capacity.

Amie Wittenberg, director of the Emergency Department, Trauma and Psychiatric Services at Salem Hospital and the operations section chief for the vaccination response, came to the fairgrounds with her team to ensure that 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,” 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.”

Wittenberg said the team plans to be at the site for up to six months.

“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,” she said.

On Jan. 8, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced the activation of the Oregon National Guard to help distribute the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We need Guardsmen to help with giving vaccinations, we need help with security and parking, we need everything,” said 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 the morning of Jan. 12. By noon, Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen were preparing and giving vaccinations, processing individuals on the electronic medical record system, monitoring the post-vaccination area and 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-lifetime 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.”

Oregon National Guard members have been supporting the state’s COVID-19 pandemic response since March. They have distributed personal protective equipment throughout the state, assisted with the largest wildfire season on record, and helped protect lives and property during civil disturbances.

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