Through our programs, with a focus on disease prevention and health promotion, we are helping to ensure your health and safety. Call 541-889-7279 to make an appointment or to learn more about our services. Stay up to date with public health news below.

Updated COVID-19 booster targets subvariants responsible for 98% of cases today

Get your updated COVID-19 booster and a flu shot at the Vaccine Event at FRCC Friday, October 14, from 10-6, and receive a $25 grocery card AND a $25 gas card. Learn more here.

The fact that we have an updated bivalent booster dose that targets the predominant variants circulating today is a wonder of science, but how do we know it’s safe and effective?

In late June, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) weighed administering the original COVID-19 vaccine as the next round of booster doses against asking manufacturers to develop an updated version. The agency evaluated several options.

Moderna and Pfizer had already produced updated bivalent vaccines that targeted the Omicron BA.1 subvariant. These vaccines went through clinical trials, produced more antibodies against Omicron subvariants than the original vaccine, and were ultimately approved and rolled out in the United Kingdom over the summer.

The FDA, however, recommended vaccine manufacturers design updated bivalent boosters to specifically fight the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, in addition to previous subvariants. Let’s examine some of the reasons for that decision.

What is a bivalent vaccine?

A bivalent vaccine targets two things. In this case, it targets two strains of the virus that causes COVID-19. The recently released updated bivalent booster vaccine from Moderna and Pfizer contain messenger RNA (mRNA) that tells our cells to build:

  • The “spike” protein from the first strain of COVID-19 that emerged more than two years ago, which is the target of the original vaccine.
  • The “spike” proteins from the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants (identical to each other) that are responsible for about 98% of COVID-19 cases in the United States today.

This means the updated booster vaccine better protects us against the subvariants circulating today than the original vaccine does.

“Adding a component to the boosters that specifically targets the subvariants currently circulating will help restore protection against COVID-19 infections, including hospitalizations, that has decreased over time,” said Dean Sidelinger, M.D. MSEd, health officer and state epidemiologist at Oregon Health Authority. “This is especially important as we head into the fall, when cases across Oregon and the United States are expected to increase.”

Additionally, the bivalent booster still has instructions to build COVID-19’s original “spike” protein for a few important reasons:

  • The original vaccine has been highly effective at preventing COVID-19-related hospitalizations and death over the past two years (including all variants and subvariants).
  • Bivalent vaccines cast a wider net that may better protect us against future variants.
  • A bivalent vaccine may provide higher levels of immunity for a longer period of time.

Why do we need an updated vaccine?

The virus that causes COVID-19 has evolved significantly since it first appeared nearly three years ago. The Omicron spike protein alone has mutated more than 30 times since the original vaccine was designed. These mutations allow the virus to better evade immunity, allowing it to infect people more easily. The updated booster dose, on the other hand, builds more antibodies for the virus strains circulating today.

Are booster doses effective?

Immunity from COVID-19 vaccines (and infection) declines over time. This is why we need a booster dose. While we’ve seen an increase in breakthrough infections since Omicron arrived in Dec. 2021, booster doses have remained incredibly effective at protecting us from COVID-19-related hospitalization and death:

  • During the peak of the Omicron surge from January through March 2022, people age 5 and older who were unvaccinated were 20x more likely to die from COVID-19 compared to somebody who had received at least one booster dose.
  • In June 2022, unvaccinated people age 5 and older were 8x more likely to die from COVID-19 compared to somebody who had received at least one booster dose.
  • In June 2022, unvaccinated people age 50 and older were 14x more likely to die from COVID-19 compared to those who had received at least two booster doses. Also in June, people age 50 and older who had received one booster dose were 3x more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who had received at least two booster doses.

Is it safe?

We know mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are safe. More than 590 million doses have been administered in the United States alone over the past two years, and serious health problems after vaccination are rare. The overall composition of the updated booster dose is the same as the original booster dose, but the spike protein it tells our cells build is slightly different.

Both Moderna and Pfizer held human clinical trials of bivalent vaccines that target the original strain and the BA.1 Omicron subvariant that showed the vaccines to be safe. It is true that the BA.4 and BA.5 version of the bivalent vaccine has only been tested in mice, but there is no reason to anticipate a difference in the safety of this updated vaccine based on limited mutations in the spike protein it creates. COVID-19 vaccines have a “high degree of safety” (slide 67). The updated BA.4 and BA.5 bivalent vaccine, which has been given emergency use authorization by the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is currently undergoing human trials now in order to receive full approval from federal health officials.

The flu shot does not have human trials every year. Flu shots are safe.

“This process is not new and is in fact very similar to the annually updated flu shots we receive each year,” Sidelinger said. “Because the circulating strains of flu change, components of the vaccine change to better protect us. These changes don’t impact the well-established safety of the vaccines.”

Updates to authorized vaccines do not require human trials for safety. Their safety is already known. The challenge is matching a vaccine to the most prevalent known strains of a virus.

Additionally, producing the flu vaccine require growing a virus in chicken eggs, and it takes at least six months to produce enough vaccine for the nation’s population. Because the flu virus mutates from year to year, producing multiple strains globally, scientists must decide which strains to target for vaccines months before flu season begins every fall. This is one of the reasons flu vaccines, although still critical to preventing severe illness, are often less than 50% effective in preventing infection.

mRNA speed

One of the incredible aspects of “plug and play” mRNA technology is how fast an mRNA vaccine can be developed once the genetic code of the virus is known.

In late June, the FDA examined the human trials for an updated bivalent booster based on the Omicron BA.1 subvariant. Scientists on the FDA’s advisory panel concluded the bivalent vaccine improved the antibody response to the Omicron variant. However, they predicted that Omicron’s BA.1 subvariant would no longer be predominant by the time the updated vaccine would be available in September. So instead, the FDA panel recommended Moderna and Pfizer manufacture a bivalent vaccine that targets both the original strain and BA.4/BA.5. The result: we have an updated booster dose specifically designed to fight the variants that account for 98% of all COVID-19 cases in the U.S.

The FDA correctly predicted BA.4 and BA.5 would become the predominant subvariants. This ability to rapidly create an updated vaccine targeting new or emerging variants or subvariants showcases the speed of mRNA technology.

If you are interested in knowing more, review the slides from the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices’ Sept. 1-2 presentations on updated bivalent booster doses.

Opioid Overdoses Increased in 2021

Find more resources at International Overdose Awareness Day

Fentanyl and methamphetamine help fuel rise in deaths and hospitalizations

Methamphetamines and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl helped drive an increase in opioid overdoses and related deaths in 2021, according to a new Oregon Health Authority (OHA) report.

The report, Opioids and the Ongoing Drug Overdose Crisis in Oregon, shows that overdoses involving multiple drugs – known as polysubstance overdoses – also rose during 2021 and now account for more than half of all fatal overdoses. In addition, hospitalizations increased in 2021 following decreases between 2018 and 2020. Charges for drug overdose-related hospitalizations reached $170 million and overdose-related emergency room charges reached $50 million.

“What this report tells us is that, even as prescription opioids were on the decline in Oregon over the last decade, misuse of synthetic and prescription opioids and other drugs continues to take a heavy toll on everyone in our state,” said Tom Jeanne, M.D., M.P.H., deputy health officer and deputy state epidemiologist at OHA’s Public Health Division, who served as an advisor on the report. “We need to continue our efforts focused on enhanced prevention across the continuum of drug use.”

The report also describes those at highest risk for unintentional drug overdose death in 2021, which were non-Hispanic American Indians and Alaska Natives, non-Hispanic Blacks, and males. At lowest risk were people of Hispanic ethnicity and non-Hispanic Asians and Pacific Islanders.

“These are populations that have been unfairly affected by systemic racism, socioeconomic and political injustices and bias, which through multiple pathways can worsen health outcomes and increase the risk of experiencing a drug overdose,” Jeanne said.

The report noted some trends that presented opportunities for intervention with those at risk of overdoses.

For one, emergency medical services (EMS) personnel administered naloxone, a drug that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose, during 5,556 encounters in 2021, which is up from 3,758 encounters in 2019. In most of these cases the patient was transferred to a medical care facility for treatment.

In addition, there were almost 73,000 emergency department visits and more than 17,000 hospitalizations related to substance use disorder or intoxication issues other than an overdose in 2021. Such health care interactions represent opportunities to connect patients to treatment, prescribe naloxone – a medicine that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose – and provide other supports to reduce their risk for experiencing future overdoses, the report explains.

Providing comprehensive, non-stigmatizing harm-reduction services for people who use drugs is among a number of response strategies the report points to. Others include education for people who have never used drugs; resilience building and support to strengthen protective factors among those at higher risk for drug use and for developing substance use disorder; ensuring universal access to culturally sensitive treatment; and maintaining strong support for people in recovery, including peer support workers.

“Each non-fatal overdose and medical or behavioral health care visit has the potential to be a touch point with prevention, treatment and recovery services to support recovery and reduce the risk of a future fatal overdose,” according to the report.

An overdose is always a medical emergency. Individuals should call 911 before administering naloxone. Oregon’s Good Samaritan Law protects the caller and the person who has overdosed against possession and paraphernalia charges.

OHA’s Naloxone Rescue for Opioid Overdose webpage contains naloxone frequently asked questions and a map showing Oregon pharmacies that distribute the medicine. In Oregon, naloxone is available without a prescription. Anyone actively using opioids, or other illicit substances, can get naloxone and other harm-reduction materials at no cost through syringe service programs. Syringe service programs are available to anyone who uses drugs, regardless of whether they inject them. Here is OHA’s list of syringe and needle exchange services available in Oregon (including the Malheur County Health Department).

OHA has developed the following guidance for people who use drugs:

  • Unless a pharmacist directly hands you a prescription pill, assume it is counterfeit and contains fentanyl.
  • Assume any pills obtained from social media, the internet or a friend are counterfeit and contain fentanyl.
  • If you are using pills, don’t use alone and always have naloxone on hand and visible.
  • Test your drugs with fentanyl test strips before you use them. Fentanyl test strips can often be accessed at local harm-reduction sites.

See all OHA News Releases here.

September 18 is National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day

This day brings attention to the growing number of people living long and full lives with HIV and to their health and social needs. The Malheur County Health Department supports efforts to bring awareness to the issues related to HIV and aging in our country. Through National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day, our organization is committed to putting an end to HIV/AIDS related stigma, discrimination, and misinformation about prevention care and treatment for those over 50.

In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported persons aged 50 and older accounted for approximately:

  • 17% of new HIV diagnoses
  • 47% of persons with HIV
  • 71% of all deaths of persons diagnosed HIV infection

Of those individuals who were diagnosed with HIV at age 50 or older, 40% were 50-54 years of age.

National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day, launched in 2008 by The AIDS Institute, is recognized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policy, and www.hiv.gov.  The campaign highlights the complex issues related to HIV prevention, care, and treatment for aging populations in the United States.  The goal of the campaign is to emphasize the need for prevention, research, and data targeting the older population, medical understanding of the aging process and its impact on HIV/AIDS.

Everyone has an HIV status. People who know their HIV status can protect themselves and others. Testing is easy, but only 37% of adult Oregonians have ever been tested for HIV. About 1,200 Oregonians are infected with HIV and don’t know it. If these people get tested and start HIV treatment medications, we could prevent 150 new infections over 3 years.

Call our clinic in Ontario for comprehensive and confidential testing at 541-889-7279. Have OHP and need a ride? We can set that up for you.

Expanded eligibility for monkeypox vaccine

Oregon Health Authority (OHA) has expanded its eligibility criteria for the monkeypox (hMPXV) vaccine. It now includes “anyone who anticipates having or has had recent direct skin-to-skin contact with at least one other person AND who knows other people in their social circles or communities who have had monkeypox.” Those “communities” may include Idaho or Oregon, which both have rising monkeypox cases.

In its vaccine eligibility criteria, the vaccination guidance no longer refers to sexual orientation or gender identity, which may have been a barrier for people seeking vaccinations. The guidance also clearly states what is known as the most common route of transmission: direct, skin-to-skin contact.

In addition to encouraging vaccination for anyone who anticipates having or has had recent skin-to-skin contact with others and shares a social circle or community with someone who had the virus, the guidance continues to recommend the vaccine for other high-risk persons: anyone who had close contact with someone with monkeypox.

Get a vaccine: If you believe you are at risk of monkeypox or have more questions, please call the Malheur County Health Department at 541-889-7279 and a nurse will talk with you. We have the monkeypox vaccine in stock and want to get it to anyone who meets this expanded criteria.

Get a test: If you have a rash or sore, see your primary care provider — if you don’t have a provider please call 211 or our office at 541-889-7279 and we can help connect you to testing. Keep the rash covered, wear a mask, and avoid skin-to-skin contact with anyone until you have been checked out.

Hands Around the Park Today

The Malheur County Health Department will not have our regularly SMART Recovery meeting today, September 15th, to encourage everyone to go to Laxson Park (NW 4th St, Ontario) from 4:30-6:30 p.m. for Hands Around the Park. We will celebrate National Recovery Month at this amazing event, hosted by the Malheur County Prevention Coalition.

Malheur County Prevention Coalition welcomes everyone to join in honoring the hard work of all people in recovery, the dedication of all who support them and the care of the community. With motivational speakers, music, free food, awards, booths and activities for children, this free, family-friendly event is a celebration of prevention, treatment and recovery efforts and the people who are committed to the health of our community.

The SMART Recovery meetings will resume next Thursday, 3-4 p.m. at the health department (1108 SW 4th Street, Ontario). Led by our peer team of Certified Recovery Mentors, the meetings are free and open to anyone seeking science-based, self-empowered addiction recovery. People who are suffering from addiction, as well as their family and friends, or people who want to help others in their community are welcome. At meetings, participants help one another resolve problems with any addiction.

We hope to see you at Hands Around the Park today and SMART Recovery next week!

Raising awareness of hope during National Suicide Prevention Month

In recognition of National Suicide Prevention Month and National Suicide Prevention Week (Sept. 4-10, 2022), Oregon Health Authority (OHA) and local partners are continuing efforts to increase awareness of ways everyone can help prevent suicide.

In 2020, Oregon had the 13th highest rate of suicide in the United States, with a total of 833 deaths. Oregon’s suicide rate has stayed well above national rates since 2000. Suicide is also the second leading cause of death among youth aged 5-24.

“Suicide remains a persistent and yet largely preventable cause of death in Oregon,” said Debra Darmata, adult suicide prevention coordinator at OHA. “Every death by suicide in Oregon carries a substantial and long-lasting ripple effect into our communities. We know that suicide prevention is everyone’s business.” 

Oregon is brimming with advocates and champions for suicide prevention, including the Oregon Alliance to Prevent Suicide. Many organizations also have ongoing social media and awareness campaigns to join.

What can you do to help?

Research shows people who are having thoughts of suicide feel relief when someone asks after them in a caring way. Acknowledging and talking about suicide may reduce rather than increase thoughts of suicide. We all have a part to play in reducing stigma and ensuring people have hope, feel safe asking for help, and can get access to community-based support. You can also:

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental or behavioral health crisis, free help is immediately available.

988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline

The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, via phone, text and online chat, offering people compassionate care and support from trained crisis counselors for individuals, families or their loved ones. One does not have to be suicidal to call 988 but can reach out when experiencing any behavioral health crisis. 988 call services are available in English and Spanish, along with interpretation services in more than 150 languages. Texting 988 and online chat are currently available only in English. Veterans and military service members can call 988 and press “1” to connect with the Veterans Crisis Line.

Present a Session at Health Equity Conference

The Malheur County Equity Conference is happening Thursday, September 29th, 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. at the Four Rivers Cultural Center. Join us to connect and collaborate to advance community health and equity during a robust day focused on solutions and strengths. Register to attend here.

We need more presenters! We welcome all community partners working to develop health equity to share their approach and foster dialogue by presenting at the Malheur County Health Equity Conference. We encourage interactive sessions, with opportunities for connection, dialogue, and practice. Plan to present for 20-30 minutes and allow for 20-30 minutes of activity with your audience.

Host a session at the Health Equity Conference: Complete this form and submit by Friday, September 16, 2022.

This event is completely community-driven: for our community, by our community, about our community. We need a total of 25 break out sessions about the big and small ways we address health equity in Malheur County. Any organization invested in the health and wellbeing or our residents is encouraged to share about the successes they’ve had, strategies they’ve tried, lessons they’ve learned, and the people they serve. The expectation isn’t that each session is high level, polished, and hyper-professional. We want what is genuine and local! Share your strengths and help others.

Find more information, including registration, flyers, and session application forms, at 4rhc.org/health-equity-conference or on our previous post here.

Questions? Don’t hesitate to contact Sarah Poe at 208-501-5966 or sarah.poe@malheurco.org.

Community Needs Assessment Survey

We need your voice! Complete the 2023 Eastern Oregon & Western Treasure Valley Community Health Needs Assessment survey no later than Friday, September 16th. Your input helps us identify needs, drive strategic planning, and receive funding for services. Our local health systems, public health departments, and community partners are conducting this survey to gain a greater understanding of the issues our community members face. This includes all things that impact health (beyond just access to health care), like things related to where we live, work, and play.

Complete the survey here: https://tinyurl.com/24ntxzwv

Updated COVID-19 Boosters Approved

Updated COVID-19 boosters can both help restore protection that has decreased since previous vaccination, and provide broader protection against newer variants. The updated, or bivalent boosters, target the most recent Omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, that are more contagious and more resistant than earlier strains of Omicron. The new updated COVID-19 boosters can be administered in Oregon now that the Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup has recommended the vaccine, completing final step in the review and approval process following recommendations from the FDA and CDC.

The CDC is recommending updated COVID boosters, for people ages 12 and older. People are eligible if it’s been at least two months since they received their last COVID vaccine, either a booster or an initial dose.

The boosters can be administered regardless of which vaccine series a person received. Pfizer’s updated booster is available for anyone 12 and older. The Moderna booster is available for anyone 18 and older.

“If you are eligible, there is no bad time to get your COVID-19 booster and I strongly encourage you to receive it,” said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, in an interview with NPR.

The new boosters should be available in Malheur County this week. The Malheur County Health Department will have news out soon with increased availability for both boosters and first doses of the COVID-19 vaccines. Call our office at 541-889-7279, your local healthcare provider, or pharmacy, to check availability and make an appointment, if available. Find local vaccine providers here.

Malheur County still lags behind every other county except Lake in Oregon for protection against COVID-19 and continues to be the only county in the High Community Level of risk due to recent outbreaks. The best way to prevent serious COVID-19 illness is to stay up to date with your COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters.