Bringing COVID-19 vaccines to underserved communities

Published September 16, 2021

To mitigate the increasingly dire spread of COVID-19 in the Pacific Northwest, Regence health plans are partnering with Medical Teams International to bring vaccines directly into rural, marginalized and underserved communities.

The Pacific Northwest is being hit by the worst wave of coronavirus cases it's seen since January 2020, when it registered the U.S.'s first positive test. Once again, hospitals are reaching capacity and patients are being turned away while healthcare workers are left running on fumes. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, this surge is largely due to the gap in vaccination rates between urban and rural communities.

For many in these rural communities, vaccines have been inaccessible. Mass vaccination sites and drugstore chains predominantly serve populous areas, leaving some communities with very few options. Others, including those experiencing homelessness, often lack access to transportation or the technology needed to schedule vaccinations. Large populations of migrant farm workers may also face language barriers, compounding these issues.

To support these communities and continue leading through this public health crisis, Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon and Regence BlueShield have teamed up with longtime partner Medical Teams International (MTI)—a faith-based medical relief organization—to bring vaccine clinics directly into these communities.

"Our goal is that everyone who wants to get a vaccine has access to it," said Peggy Maguire, SVP of Corporate Social Responsibility for Regence. "It's really important to us to serve communities equitably. We’re trying to eliminate as many barriers to access as we can."

Regence and MTI's partnership began over 20 years ago with mobile clinics aimed at bringing dental care to rural and marginalized communities. In the wake of the pandemic, these mobile units were converted first to testing clinics and then again to vaccination clinics. To date, they have hosted over 50 clinics across Washington and Oregon. This work will continue as long as there is need. In addition to providing the funding critical to this work, Regence is also helping to identify key areas in need of targeted outreach and support.

Below, hear from those on the front lines of these vaccination efforts:

"Last year, growers in Washington state were hit hard with COVID outbreaks among their workers, many of whom live in housing settings of 12-24 workers per house. Once the agriculture sector became eligible for vaccinations against COVID, many growers were thrilled to be able to get their workers vaccinated to keep their workforce healthy and prevent outbreaks from hitting their housing sites. But it can be a challenge to get vaccines out to rural populations. Clinics can be far away and may not have the capacity to vaccinate hundreds—or thousands—of workers arriving to start the season. What is a way to solve the problem of getting large groups of workers vaccinated in hard-to-reach fields and housing? Mobile vaccine clinics.

Using the model originated in providing on site testing for farmworkers vulnerable to outbreaks, Regence and Medical Teams International pivoted to providing vaccines in the same manner: going directly to the houses and fields where these farmworkers live and work and providing vaccines in a simple and efficient manner. Among workers arriving directly from Mexico, we have seen a virtual 100% uptake of vaccines, and employers and employees alike are grateful to be able to continue their work in the fields with less fear of experiencing the outbreaks so common in 2020. Farms call on us because they know we can show up to any site, no matter how far away it is, and can deliver quality services to their workers.

Many of the farmworkers have expressed gratitude for receiving a vaccine against COVID. Many of them experienced outbreaks in their housing last season, and many of them feared falling ill from COVID and of missing out on work. Getting vaccines meant feeling a sense of security for their health and their jobs. Last season we watched as workers received positive test results and were moved to isolation, and the fear they had of what would happen to them—will they lose their job? Will they be hospitalized or even die? This year is a different story: one of optimism about the season ahead of them and the protection from COVID they received through mobile vaccination clinics."

– Leslie Aaron, Washington Clinic Manager, Medical Teams International

person getting shot
Medical Teams International staff and Regence volunteers set up a mobile vaccination clinic for individuals and families at a local elementary school this summer.

"On a rainy day in early May, Medical Teams set up a mobile vaccination clinic in NE Portland, specifically reaching the LatinX community. Hosted by Neighborhood School and Dual Immersion (Spanish/English) K-5 School, Rigler School, the Hopscotch Foundation rallied the community together with more than vaccinations– partnerships abound.

Visitors were greeted with a burrito lunch, offered free produce, plants, and personal care items, and encouraged by their kids’ teachers to get vaccinated. The support from the teachers, some of whom were hesitant themselves at first, encouraged parents to protect themselves and their children through getting the shot. The students showed their support, handmade posters declaring “Si se puede! Juntos nos vacunamos.” (“Yes we can! Together we vaccinate.”) Though the turnout was small, we still made an impact in the lives of many people by providing them with the COVID-19 vaccine."

– Victoria Wilson, Oregon Communications Officer, Medical Teams International

"We provided a mobile vaccine clinic at Portland Community College (PCC) in Southeast Portland on August 11th, 2021 with a second dose clinic scheduled for September 1st. This event focused on serving students and families of PCC, African American, Black, Afro-Caribbean, African/Black immigrants and refugees, other communities of color, and the underserved in the area.

When our team arrived to set up clinic, there were already 40 people lined up waiting. Within half an hour, people were wrapped around the building waiting for vaccines! Soon enough, my clinic manager called and said that she was going to need more vaccines! Multnomah County stepped up and brought us more vaccines and two more vaccinators. By the time that clinic was scheduled to end, there was still a line that was at least 60 people deep. We decided to stay to make sure we could vaccinate everyone who wanted one.

We ended up vaccinating 170 people which is a huge win. With hesitancy so prevalent right now, this clinic was certainly an outlier."

– Tory Stine, Oregon Clinic Manager, Medical Teams International

"We hosted vaccine clinics for shipworkers at the Port of Vancouver in summer 2021. I remember one captain who shared that his wife was afraid for him if he were to receive the vaccine, as he had diabetes. We spoke with him about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine and how it was not only important for him to get it due to his medical issue, but also that he would be able to see his family as soon as he returned home. He responded that since we were medical professionals advising him to get the vaccine that he would not only do it, but also was excited about getting it.

Many of the ships we vaccinate are mostly Philippino and stated that any vaccine was not yet available in their country. They now can feel safe returning home and will be able to get off the ships at various ports. They all expressed their sincere thanks for giving them this opportunity."

– Tory Stine

"We were able to travel down to Salem to do a few mobile vaccine clinics at a couple of the homeless encampments in July. We set up a pop-up clinic in the park near the encampments. We went tent to tent offering vaccine info, resources, food, hygiene kits and incentive gift cards if they were to come and get a vaccine.

We ended up vaccinating 43 houseless people! We identified a couple people who were unable to get to the clinic site due to mobility or medical issues, so we sent out a team of two to their tents to get them vaccinated. This experience was humbling and very rewarding, knowing that we were able to vaccinate a community that was not only underserved, but also unable travel to get a vaccine."

– Tory Stine

Medical team in front of truck
Regence employee volunteer at a Medical Teams International mobile vaccination clinic in Oregon.

Visit the Regence blog to learn more about what Regence companies are doing to support communities in need.

Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon and Regence BlueShield are independent licensees of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, an association of independent, locally operated Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies.

The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association is an association of 35 independent, locally operated Blue Cross and/or Blue Shield companies.