City clinic provides COVID-19 vaccines to underserved Portland communities

Blog Post
City employees volunteer for shifts at the drive-through clinic, which is located in outer northeast Portland. The clinic is designed to remove barriers for Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, people with disabilities and people who don’t speak English.
Smiling man sits in driver seat of car while his dog emerges from open window of back seat.
Gerardo Ruiz Lopez waits in the observation area with his dog Mochi after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination at the City of Portland’s drive-through clinic. "Thank you very much to everyone. They look for ways to help each person, no matter what race they are," said Ruiz Lopez, through a Spanish interpreter.

Miles from the bustle of the Oregon Convention Center and Portland International Airport, the City of Portland is operating a unique drive-through clinic to vaccinate people who historically have been underserved by their local government. 

Since March 27, the City has offered two COVID-19 vaccine clinics per week – made possible by the leadership and dedication of the City’s employees. So far, they have administered 4,997 first and second doses. 

Clinic leaders trace this community resource to the vision of Fire Chief Sara Boone, who was raised in Portland. Boone recognized the important role of Portland Fire & Rescue early in the pandemic. The bureau she oversees is the only city agency that provides health services. 

“Her desire was to reach the communities that had little or no access to healthcare, that had little or no access to COVID testing and little or no access to potential vaccinations,” explains Lisa Reslock, a Community Healthcare Assessment Team care coordinator. 

Woman in driver's seat of car talks with woman outside her car.
Janet Woodside, the Emergency Medical Services Program Manager for Fire & Rescue, orchestrated the City's vaccination agreement with the federal government, a team effort stretching from the Fire Chief, City Attorney and Chief Financial Officer to supplies, logistics and finance. Photo by Jeff Selby/Office of Equity and Human Rights

At the very start of the pandemic, Chief Boone mobilized the bureau to look for opportunities to provide access to COVID-19 testing and future vaccinations for the communities disproportionately impacted by the virus. Portland Fire & Rescue signed an agreement with Multnomah County to specifically fill the gap in services to underserved communities, such as those who speak non-English languages, have low income or disabilities or who are Black, Indigenous or people of color.  

Last July, Portland Fire & Rescue worked with Multnomah County to start COVID-19 testing of vulnerable communities. In January, they transitioned to administering vaccinations across the city, from individuals with developmental disabilities to those living in homeless encampments or in the jail system and more – the same communities they had been testing.  Reslock says that almost 18,000 shots have been administered by Fire personnel. The bureau then accepted the county’s request of setting up the City’s vaccination clinic, again designed to serve these underserved populations. The clinic became a partnership with the City’s Emergency Coordination Center.  

The City’s vaccination site is a sprawling parking lot at Northeast 122nd Avenue and Sandy Boulevard, attached to a now-closed Kmart building. According to Jake Dornblaser, co-leader of the clinic, the location was intentionally chosen for its proximity to the communities most impacted by COVID-19. 

A man with a clipboard stands outside a car while speaking with the driver of the car.
Rachit Nerwal, Bureau of Emergency Management, and June Carter, Parks & Recreation, attend a dry run of the City of Portland’s COVID-19 vaccination clinic at NE 122nd Avenue and Sandy Boulevard. Photo by Ernest Jones/Portland Bureau of Emergency Management

Everything about the drive-through clinic is designed to create a friendly, quick way to get a vaccination:  

  • By allowing people to stay in their cars, the drive-through clinic streamlines the process – removing the need for people with intellectual disabilities, for example, to navigate complex lines of people. 
  • By providing language interpreters in person or with immediate video conferencing, Dornblaser says that community members have a personable way to “speak their primary language so that they understand what is happening at the clinic and can ask their questions. It's a right to healthcare that everybody should have.” 
  • By not asking for health insurance information, the clinic removes a barrier to access.  
  • Keeping the attendance low means less waiting time. The clinic is not publicized in the news by choice, to give the communities underrepresented in the healthcare system and disproportionately affected by the pandemic the opportunity to receive the vaccine. 

“A lot of times people step in the way and they take the appointments. The marginalized communities, they never have access,” says Reslock. This is why the clinic is by referral only, in partnership with community-based organizations.

Man wearing mask holds syringe at woman's arm.
Keith Hill, Portland Fire & Rescue EMT/Firefighter, administers a COVID-19 vaccination to Vanessa Morales.

There are other clinics that cater to underserved communities, but a recent experience validated the goals of the City’s drive-through option. Dornblaser remembers a large box truck with three individuals who spoke Spanish and appeared to be in the middle of their work day. He wonders how they would have received their shots otherwise. 

The clinic is powered by City employees, many working outside their official job capacities. 

“Without the volunteers, there wouldn’t be a clinic,” Dornblaser says.  

Volunteers fill one of eight roles, from helping to direct traffic as a flagger, to running supplies such as clipboards and syringes between stations, to helping with paperwork while Portland firefighters administer shots.  

One goal is for volunteers to be “a smiling face and be somebody to greet,” says Dornblaser. 

A typical clinic sees an average of 57 City of Portland employees, their family and friends, and Neighborhood Emergency Team members, stepping up to volunteer. There are an additional eight staff members from the City's emergency center and 20 Portland Fire & Rescue employees at each clinic. Volunteers have come from 16 city offices and bureaus. 

An interesting step of the vaccination process happens on Mondays, when Neighborhood Emergency Team volunteers help consolidate data from the weekend so that each person who received a shot can be properly recorded in the state reporting system. 

Two men stand, looking at clipboards.
Ernie Jones (left), a coordinator in the Neighborhood Emergency Team program at PBEM, and Alex Sinnott, a PBEM administrative assistant, attend a dry run of the City of Portland’s COVID-19 vaccination clinic. Photo by Jeff Selby/Office of Equity and Human Rights

The spirit of generosity shines through, but the spontaneous nature of volunteering may be a motivating factor too. 

“The most surprising thing for me was how much in a rut I was working at home,” says Rebecca Geisen, a manager in the Water Bureau’s Resource Protection and Planning Group. 

“I love being able to use my skills in a different way (at the clinic) and challenge my brain to think differently, which was exhilarating and a bit nerve-wracking.”  

Geisen has volunteered four times and is eager to do more.  

"I've really enjoyed helping our non-English speakers and seeing how supportive the vaccine clinic was for everybody, including folks with functional disabilities.” She was impressed with “just how patient and lovely the firefighters were in making them feel comfortable getting their shots.” 

Ernie Jones, a coordinator with the Neighborhood Emergency Team program at the Bureau of Emergency Management, enjoyed volunteering too. "I’m a people person, and the variety of folks coming through the clinic was fun -- they saw me as helpful and providing something that contributed to their peace of mind,” Jones says. 

"It was also fun to see other City of Portland employees I haven’t seen in a while and meet others who I had pleasantly surprising connections with. Also, the clinics are super-organized, so it was easy to slip into a role and not feel like I had to invent any part of the wheel.” 

Two women stand next to each other in a selfie, wearing face masks.
A selfie photo taken by Rebecca Geisen (right) with Briggy Thomas, Water Bureau employees, while they were volunteering at the City’s vaccination clinic in April.

According to Geisen: “I received a lot of heartfelt thanks, and that feels really good!”  

“I think we have all felt pretty helpless during this pandemic,” she says. “My son got COVID in November –  he’s fully recovered – so this is a small, tangible way of feeling like I am helping combat this pandemic so more people don’t get sick.”  

Last year, Fire Chief Boone was asked to reflect on the first few months of the pandemic. This is what she had to say:

"I think there are so many unsung heroes behind the scenes that are coming together and finding innovative solutions to address the challenges and meet the needs of everyone, especially those that are most vulnerable. This massive effort reminds me of a quote from Barack Obama, who said, 'Ordinary people, when working together, can do extraordinary things.'"