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Josephine County Declines $540K Grant To Promote Vaccines

A medical provider inserts a vaccine into a man's upper arm.
Steven Cornfield via Unsplash

Josephine County commissioners turned down half a million dollars in state grant funds that would have helped them promote coronavirus vaccines.

The county is lagging behind in its vaccination rates. About 48 percent of Josephine County residents who are eligible for the vaccine have been vaccinated, according to state data. The Oregon Health Authority has identified Grants Pass as among a handful of areas in the state with large unvaccinated populations.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s office recently offered grant funds to counties to promote and provide vaccines to underserved communities. Some have used the money to hold a lottery or to launch an ad campaign.

But when the Josephine County Board of Commissioners saw the offer in May, they opted out, which was originally reported in the Grants Pass Daily Courier.

“Now we’re getting into tricking people into getting, or making it financially to their advantage to get a, a thing, even if they don’t believe it,” Commissioner Dan DeYoung said in the May 13 meeting. “I’m real skeptical of that.”

At the same meeting, Commissioner Herman Baertschiger acknowledged that the county has a large number of people who are wary of the coronavirus vaccine.

“The two areas of the state with the largest following of anti-vaccination community is Josephine County and Jackson County,” he said. “So if those people aren’t going to get vaccinated — and I tell you they’re not going to get vaccinated — and the governor is going to open the counties by how many people get vaccinated, [DeYoung], we may be in lockdown for the rest of our lives.”

Baertschiger said he hasn’t received the coronavirus vaccine because “that’s another story.”

“I’ve never been anti-vaccination,” Baertschiger said. “My position has always been it’s up to you; it’s your choice. So I get along with [people who won’t get vaccinated] just fine.”

The county’s public health director, Michael Weber, says this grant went to the commissioners’ office instead of the public health department, so he asked them what they wanted to do with the money.

“And none of them expressed any particular interest,” Weber said in an interview. “None of them said they had any thoughts about how to use it. And at the time I didn’t press the matter, so that was sort of the end of the conversation for me.”

The commissioners didn’t take a formal vote on whether to accept or reject the grant, but the finance director, Sandy Novak, sent an email to the Oregon Department of Administration declining the offer. She said that the county was already using $9 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide vaccines.

“We were already up to our neck in the process before the State jumped in,” she wrote in an email obtained by JPR.

But that FEMA grant doesn’t fund vaccine outreach. In an interview with JPR, Novak said the county is funding outreach through a $1 million grant from the Oregon Health Authority.

“There's lots of different funding sources for the same thing, and of course, we have to choose one,” Novak said. “We can't charge the same expense to more than one entity or one more than one grant.”

But the county could have used the money to expand on its current outreach work. Weber said he would have liked to use the funds to launch an ad campaign that encourages people to get vaccinated. So far, the county’s outreach has consisted of having staff appear on television and radio programs, as well as providing resources like vaccines to medical providers.

Weber said the county has steered clear of holding mass vaccination events, instead opting to provide vaccines to medical providers.

“Because providers are in the communities that we're trying to engage with,” Weber said. “They’re out in the community, so they can reach rural populations where they already have a relationship with people we’re trying to vaccinate. So that was sort of our approach in trying to achieve that equity.”

The mayor of Grants Pass has since asked commissioners if they could instead pass the money onto the city to promote vaccines.

“I met with the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, along with the city manager and two city councilors, and asked if they had any objections to the City using the funds since it looks like they won't be,” Mayor Sara Bristol told JPR by email. “They had no objections and offered to help.”

It’s not clear if the commissioners have the ability to transfer the funds to the city, or if they’d have to send that request to Brown’s office.

April Ehrlich is an editor and reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, she was a news host and reporter at Jefferson Public Radio.