A two-day COVID-19 vaccine clinic last week run by Lane County Public Health (LCPH) saw a sizeable turnout which will result in LCPH returning for future clinics.
The clinic, which was operated on City of Cottage Grove shop property last Friday and Saturday, administered vaccines to a total of 56 individuals, which LCPH Public Information Officer Jason Davis deemed a success.
Considering the size of the community, Davis said the numbers are on par with ratios in the rest of the county.
“It shows a general demand,” he said. “So, we’re going to be back in Cottage Grove.”
LCPH is likely to do more targeted outreach next time, however, which will focus on partnering with organizations to run small pop-up clinics and reach underserved demographics.
In Cottage Grove, this means focusing on the area’s Latino community and rural workers with long workdays.
Besides demonstrating a demand for vaccinations in the area, the operation of the clinic on fenced city shop property was notable as it was a reaction to a previous clinic at Bohemia Park having been shut down by protests.
The new site was chosen to diminish the risk of such a recurrence, said Cottage Grove city staff.
The planned two-week clinic at Bohemia Park, funded and operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Oregon Health Authority (OHA), shut down on its third day of operation on Jan. 24.
Last November, another LCPH clinic at the Cottage Grove Chamber of Commerce was the site of contention when protesters demonstrated and many attendees of the clinic complained they felt uncomfortable and intimidated due to the intensity of the protests, citing the use of a bullhorn to mock the clinic.
Protesters had previously told The Sentinel that their core message was anti-force, or an argument against mandates, rather than anti-vaccine. Some attendees of the Chamber of Commerce clinic expressed to The Sentinel, however, that they did not feel the protesters were honoring their choice to get the vaccine.
A planned LCPH vaccine clinic at Harrison Elementary School was immediately canceled following the row, but Interim Public Information Officer for Lane County Health and Human Services Anne Marie Levis told The Sentinel that the protests were not entirely to blame for the cancellation.
Levis said an increased need in Thurston that day and low sign-up rate in Cottage Grove weighed more heavily on that decision.
Still, protesters were later implicated by Cottage Grove city staff and health authorities as the reason for the Bohemia Park clinic closing on Jan. 24. Both OHA organizers and city staff cited intimidation tactics used by the protesters.
Protesters who spoke with The Sentinel at the time disputed that they were intimidating and emphasized a desire to see “informed consent” around vaccine administration, arguing that vaccines are more dangerous and not as effective as mainstream health authorities have claimed.
Some said they respected the rights of people to choose but simply wanted to inform others about what they regard as damning evidence against the vaccines’ safety.
Others criticized the use of FEMA and public money to run the clinic.
City Manager Richard Meyers was heavily critical of protesters, however, following the closure of the Bohemia Park clinic.
“Other people interfering with someone else exercising their rights is not patriotic and is not the right thing to do,” he said as the clinic was closing. “They (attendees) have every right to come and get their vaccinations, without intimidation, without inhibitions, without oppression or anything else along that line.”
Part of the claim regarding intimidation tactics on the part of the protesters refers to confirmation from both city staff witnesses and Cottage Grove Police Chief Scott Shepherd that protesters had gone into the special event permit area while people were receiving or waiting in line to get vaccines.
A major shortcoming of the Bohemia Park drive-thru clinic, Shepherd said, was a lack of delineation on where those lines of the permit were drawn, resulting in some confusion and arguments about where the protesters could be.
In one case, a citation was issued, but not to a protester. Reportedly, one protester walked into the special event area to record a mother and her child receiving the vaccine. The mother responded aggressively enough that the protester was able to press charges and, ultimately, the mother was cited for harassment.
Strictly from a law enforcement perspective, Shepherd said it was true that the mother was the one who violated the law, but that there is still a general responsibility for people to respect each other’s dignity.
“It doesn’t mean just because you don’t put your hands on somebody that you weren’t involved in the problem of creating a confrontation,” he said, adding that he hoped to see disagreement among community members transpire in a more respectful manner.
Meyers cited this incident as a reason for using a fenced area for last week’s city shop clinic.
“There’s a right of privacy in any kind of healthcare decision and that’s the thing that’s most disturbing about this, is they were violating that privacy and entering those spaces,” he said. “That’s why we’ve strictly said, ‘Hey, this interference will not be tolerated this time.’ And they’re going to have to be much more respectable to the privacy and the rights of the other people.”
Last Friday and Saturday, a handful of protesters did show up to line the sidewalk leading to the clinic, but they weren’t the only ones to show up. A group of around 15 people turned out for a “Life Celebration” on the other side of the street, holding signs which thanked people for getting the vaccine. Attendees set up balloons, refreshments and provided live music during the event.
Cottage Grove resident Jan Ogsbury applied for the special events permit for the celebration.
“It was very spontaneous,” she said on Friday. “I wanted it to be peaceful. I don’t want conflict. I want it to be safe. And that’s it — people can go from there.”
Resident Lisa Bourgault said she joined the celebration because she wanted to “bring the temperature down” in light of the Bohemia Park clinic.
“I know some people who are frightened by what happened. They were frightened because [the protesters] were being really aggressive,” she said, adding that she wanted to make a welcoming environment “and not back down because some scary people are trying to stop you.”
Resident Rob Dickinson said he was there to support people’s decision attend the clinic.
“I’m just here to support the city’s efforts to vaccinate our community or let people exercise their right to choose to be vaccinated,” he said. “I was appalled that people would try to interfere with people’s choice to get the vaccine. … It seems as though people were intimidated from being able to exercise their right to get vaccinated. And many people might not come again. And so, we’re hoping to create that welcoming environment.”
Despite the conflicting views and signage on either side of the street, the atmosphere on N 14th Street for those two days was calm and at times even pleasant as there was some intermingling between the two groups.
Sara Myers, a regular participant in the protests against the vaccine mandates, told The Sentinel that the Bohemia Park clinic fiasco did not play out in a way that was in line with her group’s message. In particular, the altercation with the protester and the mother and child, she said, was not representative of what local protesters were trying to accomplish.
“She made us look bad,” said Myers, adding that the protester was not local. “The bad apple ruins the bunch. And one person made the whole group look like that.”
There was also an allegation that members of the protest had clogged the public toilets. Myers said the group has asked for evidence.
“Because if it is a member of our group, we don’t want them to come to our protests,” she said. “We originally were down there to just educate people. We also didn’t like the location (at Bohemia Park). I thought that was very inappropriate location. This (the city shop), I feel, is an appropriate location.”
There have been previous allegations that people from outside the community have been taking part in protests over the vaccines, bolstering numbers. The degree to which the Bohemia Park conflict can be attributed to out-of-area protesters is difficult to determine, however, as attendees have reported the mere intensity and volume of protesters as contributing to conflict. Some protesters have been seen openly carrying firearms as well, which some community members have pointed to as an intimidation tactic.
Views within the protester group itself differ, too, but if there is a lightning rod, it has been the issue of mandates in regard to both vaccines and masks. Many in the group also reject the mainstream health authority narrative that the vaccines are safe and effective, often citing sources which claim the contrary.
Protester Bill Christiansen said he came to protest events at the city shop last week because he wanted to raise awareness about the “other side” of the vaccine story.
“But we would never infringe on somebody’s right to get a vaccine. We just want people to be informed that there is another side to the story,” he said.
Myers emphasized she is fine with people choosing to get vaccinated, though she does think they are misguided.
“People have made up their minds, they’re going do what they want to do. And we all know this. And hopefully they are educating themselves,” she said.
While it is unlikely opinions will be fundamentally moved on either side as a result of such events, last week’s clinic provided at least one example of community members’ ability to disagree without overt animus.