Many parents in Oregon resist having their younger children vaccinated against Covid-19

One-fourth of the state’s 337,000 children between 5 and 11 years old have gotten a shot

By: and - December 17, 2021 8:30 am
Girl looking at wall

Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin is working on proposals for the next legislative session to help children suffering from mental health problems. (Annie Otzen/Getty Images)

Demand for Covid vaccinations for children remains low in many areas of Oregon, leaving kids 5 to 11 vulnerable to the coronavirus, according to state reports and health officials.

The state has an estimated 337,000 children in that age group, and as of Dec. 14, just over one in four had received the vaccine.

Health professionals say the slow pace stands in contrast to how Oregonians responded when vaccines were available first for adults and then for those 12 to 17.

“This was a dramatic difference,” said Dave Baden, chief financial officer for the Oregon Health Authority managing the vaccine program. “This was ‘Wow’ ­ – a very, very big difference.”

Local health departments, pharmacies and doctors began administering the two-dose Pfizer vaccine in early November. The dosage for children is one-third that for adults.

An internal health authority report obtained by the Capital Chronicle through a public records request shows wide variations in vaccination rates. The report also notes what local officials are reporting about why that is.

In Grant County, 29 of 421 children in the 5 to 11 age group had been vaccinated by Dec. 14.

“Primary care providers who have notified their patients that they carry the pediatric vaccine have received backlash and threats of people leaving their practice,” according to the internal report.

Kimberly Lindsay, the county’s public health administrator, said a lot of people in the county are angry about Covid restrictions and vaccine campaigns. 

“(They) feel the vaccine is unsafe, feel that there’s a lot of government overreach that is occurring and feel that the vaccine is being pushed upon them,” she said.

Primary care providers who have notified their patients that they carry the pediatric vaccine have received backlash and threats of people leaving their practice.

– Grant County public health note

The health department, which is managed under contract with Community Counseling Services, has offered to give shots at schools, but there’s been little interest in the pediatric vaccine, Lindsay said.

“We asked the schools if we could administer the pediatric doses,” Lindsay said. “Most of them said no, that they were uncomfortable because they didn’t want to get backlash from the community.”

Vaccination rates

in Oregon children

Statewide: 26.3% (88,741 out of 337,154)

Lowest 5 counties

Wheeler – 4.0% (4 of 99)

Douglas – 5.1% (399 of 7,775)

Lake – 5.2% (23 of 442)

Umatilla – 5.7% (463 of 8,181)

Gilliam – 6.2% (8 of 128)

Highest 5 counties

Benton – 43.3% (2,343 of 5,415)

Multnomah – 40.0% (23,913 of 59,834)

Washington – 37.0% (20,152 of 54,493)

Hood River – 34.9% (787 of 2,258)

Clackamas – 31.5% (10,627 of 33,704)

In Lake County, 10 out of 442 children had been vaccinated by Nov. 29. Two weeks later, another 13 had been vaccinated.

The local health department reported it is “getting a lot of hate from the community about pediatric vaccines,” and that it “planned a family movie night but had to cancel it due to the backlash” to pediatric vaccines, according to the state report.

“HD received a threatening phone call that they reported to the sheriff’s office, the report said.

Local doctors weren’t offering the vaccine, and when local health authorities asked whether they intended to, “the answer was no.”

Jackson County health authorities told the state that they are “hearing a lot of fear from schools due to the current political climate which may be reducing the number of clinics offered with ped vaccines.”

Baden from the health authority said state officials see a clear difference between rural and urban areas of Oregon.

“There’s not a welcome sign for any kids’ vaccination events in many of these places,” Baden said.

Angry residents berate staff

In Lakeview, residents have stormed into the public health clinic, berating staff for offering Covid-19 vaccines.

“Unfortunately, our public health employees have taken a fair amount of grief from people that think that this is not a good idea,” said Charlie Tveit, CEO of the Lake County Health District. “We get people that are adamantly against vaccinations and so they’ll rant and rave and carry on.”

His staff has also fielded calls from angry people. 

Those who oppose the vaccines claim that Covid is a hoax, the scientists are wrong and that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been taken over by special interests, Tveit said.

The pediatric vaccine is only available at the county’s clinic, which is where county residents usually receive vaccinations. 

Public health officials vaccinated 10 children in their first pediatric vaccine clinic on Nov. 7 and gave eight more shots in a clinic on Dec. 1. Their parents were vaccinated, Tveit said.

“At this time we have not had anyone else interested in this vaccine,” Tveit said.

Lake County advertised the pediatric shots in the local newspaper, on radio and on Facebook. He said the generally tepid response toward Covid-19 vaccines in Lake County, where 64% of those 65 and older have received at least one dose, has to do with the relatively low hospitalization rate.

He’s also not making a big push for kids to get vaccinated.

“I still think vaccines are the way that as a population, we want to protect ourselves and the others that we live with,” Tveit said, but the pediatric vaccine might not be necessary for children in remote areas.

When Umatilla County’s Public Health Department received its first shipments of Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine for young children in early November, Joseph Fiumara Jr., the department’s director, feared it wouldn’t be enough. The department only received half of what officials had requested.

It turned out to be plenty. 

There’s not a welcome sign for any kids’ vaccination events in many of these places.

– Dave Baden, chief financial officer, Oregon Health Authority

“Demand was slow enough that it wasn’t an issue,” Fiumara said.

In early November, the department paid for a phone survey that included a question about whether participants planned to have their children vaccinated. A majority said they did not, most citing two reasons: The vaccines are too new, and kids don’t need it.

The county has been vaccinating about 10 to 20 children a week, Fiumara said. The county did not sponsor any clinics for kids.

“We tried to do a lot of outreach to the schools,” Fiumara said. “They often help get some of that information out.”

The response, he said, was lukewarm.

“It’s such a political flashpoint that folks are hesitant to fully endorse something for fear of the pushback they’re going to get,” he said.

In Douglas County in southern Oregon, Dr. Bob Dannenhoffer, the county’s public health officer, wouldn’t agree to an interview but addressed the pediatric vaccinations in an emailed statement.

Dannenhoffer indicated that the county’s child vaccination rate, at 5.1% as of Dec. 14, is likely to remain relatively low.

“Anecdotally, if parents are not vaccinated, the kids aren’t vaccinated,” Dannenhoffer wrote.

He said county officials haven’t had any pushback from parents.

“They don’t even want to discuss or talk about it,” Dannenhoffer wrote.

Public health director has daughter vaccinated

The director of public health In Malheur County, Sarah Poe, is trying to lead by an example. A single mother, she’s fully vaccinated and her 11-year-old daughter recently had her second dose. Poe tells other parents what a relief that is after struggling with her daughter out of school when she had Covid.

“I don’t worry as much now that she’s vaccinated,” Poe said.

But many people in Malheur County don’t want to follow suit. Only 220 children, or 7.7% of the county’s population of 5 to 11 year olds, have received one dose.

To increase the childhood vaccinations, Poe has given presentations to three school boards, and next week the Nyssa School District will hold an event. But persuading people to get a shot is mostly a one-on-one affair.

“We still have to do the slower work of understanding people’s hesitations and demystifying misinformation or rumors they’ve heard,” Poe said. “Those conversations take time.”

The county’s Hispanic population is the most vaccine resistant, Poe said. Distrust of government runs high in the community, and many have had bad experiences with health care, she said. The county lacks primary care providers, and many people aren’t insured. 

Baden said parents are “playing that odds game” that their children won’t get Covid and won’t have serious health issues if they do.

It's such a political flashpoint that folks are hesitant to fully endorse something for fear of the pushback they're going to get.

– Joseph Fiumara Jr., public health director, Umatilla County

Dr. Ben Hoffman, a pediatrician and professor of pediatrics at Oregon Health & Science University, said the risk for hospitalization and even death for children who get the coronavirus is “much less than for adults,” adding “I don’t think the community should discount the risk of Covid.”

According to the state health authority, through Nov. 6, Oregon recorded 20,683  Covid cases in children 5 to 11 and 111 hospitalizations.

Even in the Portland area, “there’s a culture of resistance and non-belief around vaccines” that is now playing out with the Covid vaccines, Hoffman said.

He estimates that roughly one-third of families won’t get children vaccinated, one-third will and a third are hesitating.

“The work we really have to do is in the middle,” Hoffman said.

He said some parents are waiting for more detailed information about the effect of getting vaccinated or of Covid on children. He said some are concerned about myocarditis – an inflammation of the heart muscle that in rare instances can cause death.

“There is much greater risk for kids who get Covid than with the vaccine” to face myocarditis, Hoffman said.

Hoffman said other factors may be limiting pediatric vaccinations. He said fewer people are qualified to administer a shot to a child. He also noted that the state had a robust campaign when vaccines became available for adults but that work for pediatric vaccinations “has been a little more fragmented.”

Baden said in some areas there is a mistrust of government, of Salem and of Gov. Kate Brown.

“Having another billboard is not changing hearts and minds,” Baden said.

Baden said the pediatric vaccine is safe and effective, and that the risk from Covid remains real for children.

“Covid is causing disease and in the worst cases death in kids across the world,” Baden said.

Hoffman said there is “a real tangible risk” for families that leave their children unvaccinated. He said children who become infected may not get sick but can spread the virus to others more vulnerable to serious effects.

“I can’t think of a single reason why you shouldn’t vaccinate your child,” Hoffman said. “This isn’t an issue of belief. This is an issue of survival.”


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Les Zaitz
Les Zaitz

Les Zaitz is a veteran editor and investigative reporter, serving Oregon for more than 45 years. He reported for The Oregonian for 25 years and owns community newspapers and a digital news service. He is a national SPJ fellow, two-time Pulitzer finalist, including for a lengthy investigation of Mexican drug cartels in Oregon and five-time winner of Oregon’s top investigative reporting award. He has investigated corrupt state legislators, phony charities, and an international cult that moved to Oregon, and the biggest bank failure in Oregon history. He also has been active in reforming the state’s public records law and was appointed by the governor to the Oregon Public Records Advisory Council. In his spare time, he operates a ranch nestled in a national forest, feeding horses and assorted animals.

Lynne Terry
Lynne Terry

Lynne Terry, who has more than 30 years of journalism experience, is Oregon Capital Chronicle's editor-in-chief. She previously was editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site; reported on health in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio.