Douglas Okanogan County
Fire District 15
Community-wide COVID-19 services
Since the early days of the pandemic, Douglas Okanogan County Fire District 15, in partnership with Okanogan County Public Health District and Family Health Centers, has implemented a community-wide comprehensive COVID-19 testing and vaccination program. It was a logistical feat and a lifesaver. Though they no longer offer daily drive thru testing and vaccinations, the fire district continues to provide access to testing under the Washington State Department of Health’s WA COVID-19 program.
Douglas Okanogan County Fire District 15, located in Brewster, Washington serves all 275 sq miles across Douglas and Okanogan Counties, two of the largest and poorest counties in Washington State. As an agricultural hub, the county nurtures everything from cherries to apples to cattle, and the community sees a huge influx of agricultural workers during the growing season. Brewster has a population of about 2,000 people. But from February to the end of November, one of the larger growers brings in 1,500 – 3,200 workers, most of whom are H-2A workers (temporary agricultural workers) from Mexico, Jamaica and other countries.
When the pandemic hit, it hit the Douglas Okanogan region really hard. Thousands of agricultural workers from different countries were arriving – and suddenly needed to be tested for a novel virus. The county’s Public Health Department, led by Lauri Jones, immediately reached out to Tonya Vallance, the Director of Services at Douglas Okanogan County Fire District 15, with a simple question: Can you help?
Tonya remembers, “Public health came to us and asked us if there was any way we could help. And we said: Yeah, we’re a 24/7 agency so we’re here all the time and we’re more than willing to do whatever we can to help out the community. That’s how we got started. Before long, together with Lauri at Public Health, we had everything all figured out on how to implement testing and, later, vaccinations. We knew COVID was going to be bad, and we needed to figure out how to take care of the people in our county because no one else was going to be able to do it.”
The joint effort by Public Health, DOCFD15 and Family Health Centers, allowed for consistent drive-through testing and vaccinations of their residents along with thousands of arriving agricultural workers.
“First, we had to test them. They would come in by the bus load to our drive thru testing site. If anyone tested positive, we would have to pull them out and put them into an isolated area. And anyone who tested negative, we would give them the vaccine [once they were available]. And we did this continually.”
It was a logistical feat. They operated 7 days a week, conducting testing and hundreds of health checks, often working through interpreters. They would get referrals from the local ER for COVID positive patients who weren’t admitted to the hospital, but needed someone to check on them. People would call and tell them they weren’t feeling well at all hours, and they would say: Come over, we’ll test you right away. All of this was led by the Fire District, Public Health and Family Health Centers staff along with a cadre of volunteer firefighters and EMTs.
2023 is the first year since the pandemic began in 2020 that DOCFD15 has not offered testing and vaccine drive-thrus, and it left Tonya and her team asking: Now what?
“Helping the community was second nature. We felt like we needed to still be doing something. Then the WA COVID-19 program came up, and we already know how to do it. It was nothing for us to step into this role, because we’ve been in this role for so many years. But the funding [provided by the program] was definitely a huge component. Getting the supplies without a cost – that was huge.”
DOCFD15 is now able to provide COVID-19 testing directly from the rigs. EMS personnel can test clients before they get to the ER and call ahead to alert the ER if the patient tests positive. It also helps the DOCFD15 team know if they need to clean the rig more thoroughly following the transport of a COVID-19 positive patient.
Tonya and her team spread information about the continued testing program by word-of-mouth, on the Douglas Okanogan County Fire District 15 Facebook page and through flyers at the Post Office. But for the most part, the community knows. Tonya explains, “They never stopped coming from the very beginning. We set the precedent and they know they can come here for tests and vaccines. We can’t do vaccines anymore, but people keep showing up asking for them.” With the changing policies regarding COVID-19 vaccine cost sharing, Tonya is worried that the need for an appointment and the cost of a co-pay will deter many in the community from getting boosters, but she’s hopeful that the community will continue to protect themselves from COVID-19.
It’s calmer now at DOCFD15. But the word “calm” is relative. Some days, as many as 12-13 people come to the fire department for take home tests. And the fire district is ramping up its educational offerings, providing two first aid classes per day for growers and schools.
Tonya acknowledges, “Our plates are overflowing. It’s very hard to do it the way we do it. When people are here, they are working. When a 911 call drops, everyone goes to answer. It’s difficult. We’re a small mom and pop fire department, without a lot of staff. But we try to provide as many services as possible.”
DOCFD15 is able to expand their community programs, like COVID-19 testing, by compensating staff for their time spent providing testing supplies and education to the community. The funds DOCFD15 is accessing were made available through the WA COVID-19 program to help First Responders offset their costs providing the critical service. When DOCFD15 first enrolled in WA COVID-19, they estimated labor and supply costs. DOH approved their expenses, and now DOCFD15 invoices DOH twice monthly to recoup those expenses. In the midst of increasing unfunded mandates, access to funding through the WA COVID-19 program has been essential to sustaining their COVID-19 testing service.
Despite the challenges, Tonya and her team know that the community values their work. “It’s been tough. But it’s been rewarding. I still see people in the store and they say: Hey! You gave me my shot. Or hey! You stuck a swab up my nose.”
And their impact on the community continues with the WA COVID-19 program.
“Testing is something we can provide that community members don’t have to pay for and that’s huge. We’re a poor county, people don’t have money for testing – but they can still get tested and they are very appreciative.”
Lauri Jones, Community Health Director, Okanogan County Public Health
Julie Weymyer, Infectious Disease RN, Family Health Centers
Bill Vallance, District Fire Chief, Douglas Okanogan County Fire District 15
DOCFD15 Staff & Volunteers
Entire team at Family Health Centers
We provide resources and one-to-one technical assistance to help you educate community members on why testing matters and how they can test themselves for COVID-19. Knowing when to isolate, especially when other vulnerable individuals may be involved, is critical to protecting community health.
The Washington State Department of Health and Heath Commons periodically reviews the contents of WACOVID19.org to keep information content of WACOVID19.org as up to date as possible during guidance changes and program expansion. The content of WACOVID19.org does not necessarily represent the official views of WA State Department of Health.