Extension assists with COVID-19 testing in Columbia, Washington counties

ST. HELENS, Ore. – Tears welled up in the eyes of public health members at a meeting of the Columbia Health Coalition in November.

They were overcome with emotion as they described the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic. The coalition partners work to make Columbia County a healthy, active community. This is a county on the boundary between the north Oregon Coast and the Portland Metro area that doesn’t have a hospital to serve its population of 50,000.

Local residents regularly have to drive more an hour each way to get tested for the virus in nearby counties.

“It’s overwhelming for anybody who’s in the middle of this crisis, and they are the public face of this pandemic,” said Jenny Rudolph, an associate professor of practice in the Oregon State University Extension Service Family and Community Health Program in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences.

Recognizing the strain on their partners, Rudolph and other faculty and staff in the Extension office in Columbia County didn’t hesitate to volunteer to assist with drive-through COVID-19 testing clinics at St. Helens High School.

The clinics, which are offered by the Oregon Health Authority and Columbia County Public Health, are free and available to anyone who shows up during the four allotted hours – 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The final clinic will be on Dec. 30. Online registration is strongly encouraged to help speed up services.

The Center for Health Innovation in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences has an intergovernmental agreement with the Oregon Health Authority to partner on COVID-19 testing and contact tracing efforts.

In July, Washington County Extension staff and faculty partnered with Oregon Health and Science University at a testing clinic in Beaverton that resulted in 362 individuals getting tested, including 60 who displayed symptoms.

So far, the Columbia County clinics have resulted in 585 tests. Extension volunteers are helping with traffic flow, registration, and supporting the medical team with quality control checks. Other organizations volunteering for the effort include the American Red Cross, Medical Reserve Corps and Columbia County CERT (Community Emergency Response Team).

Anne Parrott, coordinator for public health emergency preparedness for Columbia County Public Health, praised all of the volunteers for their “outstanding teamwork and great problem-solving from one event to the next.”

“We truly have a cohesive group with many of you returning for a second and third time,” Parrott wrote in an e-mail. “Once again, these efforts do not go unnoticed by the medical team. They continue to pay high compliments to Columbia County’s spirit of volunteerism with recognition to local volunteers and those coming from outside the county to help out.” 

Parrott gave special praise to Woody Davis, 4-H Youth Development educator, for his help with traffic flow and logistics. For the second testing clinic, Davis and Holly Haebe, St. Helens CERT coordinator, changed the traffic flow to reduce congestion and keep the medical team out of the rain. They created a colored card system to place on vehicles, leading to a more efficient way to differentiate those who had pre-registered or needed to register on site.

At the third clinic, Davis started his day at 7:45 a.m. setting up traffic cones in the parking lot as the skies opened up. He jokingly referred to it as the “COVID swim party.”

That sunny outlook has been shared by all of the Extension volunteers, which include Rudolph, Lura Kennerly and Julie Scism. They all said they’re thankful for the opportunity to get out of to support this important community effort and get some exercise, for example.

Kennerly, a Family and Community Health (FCH) education program assistant, was a registration volunteer at the second clinic.

“I was just so happy to be there to support this community,” Kennerly said. “There was so much gratitude and so much patience. Everyone was so happy we were there.”

Scism, a nutrition education program assistant, volunteered with registration at the third clinic. She said one man told her from his car that he hoped at least one person had thanked her.

“I told him that I had gotten many thanks,” she said. “People have been so gracious.”

Rudolph, who volunteered at the third event, said, “In any way that we can be useful right now, specifically with this outreach effort, we’re happy to help.”

“I helped register people who hadn’t pre-registered. These include people who don’t have access to computers, or smartphones, and nobody was turned away,” said Rudolph, the Moore Family Outreach Coordinator in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “It’s wonderful to be able to stay connected with our community partners and work side by side with them.”

The average wait time has dropped to under an hour, compared to other testing clinics in Oregon that have averaged two- or three-hour waits, notwithstanding that this is a clinic in which anybody can show up.

“It’s just nice to be able to offer this to our residents,” Davis said. “I’m just glad to be a part of something that works.”

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