Gov. Kate Brown today pushed back the date when older Oregonians can expect to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, blaming the delay on the federal government promising reserve doses it didn't have.
But Brown also said she would stick to vaccinating teachers first, beginning Jan. 25, citing her priority to reopen schools as soon as possible.
Oregonians over the age of 80 can now expect to be vaccinated beginning Feb. 8. The state will make vaccines available to 75-year-olds the subsequent week, 70-year-olds the following week, and 65-year-olds the next, Brown said.
Earlier this week, Brown had said vaccinations for everyone over 65 would begin Jan. 23.
"At the current rate that we are receiving vaccines, we expect it would take about 12 weeks for us to get through the population of everybody 65 years and older," said Oregon Health Authority director Pat Allen. "That's based on supply."
If that schedule holds, it will be mid-May before Oregon will start vaccinating frontline workers or Oregonians with health risks who are under the age of 65, not to mention younger, healthier, less-at-risk Oregonians.
Notably, Brown said she hoped to have schools open for early grades by the week of Feb. 15, though teachers who get vaccinated as soon as Jan. 25 will not have had time to get the second dose, which takes place three weeks later for the Pfizer vaccine and 28 days later for the Moderna vaccine, along with a waiting period for the vaccine to be fully effective.
Oregon officials were first to trigger alarm in the national press that the federal government had no reserve of vaccines. Oregon says it was expecting to receive some 125,000 doses from that reserve next week and use them for an ambitious vaccination drive for seniors.
But Allen acknowledged the 125,000-dose figure was Oregon's own calculation.
And there were still major questions about Oregon's logistical ability to deliver the vaccine to people over 65, even if the federal vaccines had been made available.
The Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems expressed support for the delay in vaccinating seniors, but called into question whether the state's estimate of reserves had been adequate to reach the population of older people that Brown earlier this week had said would get vaccines starting Jan. 23, alongside teachers.
"We were supportive but skeptical that the supply would meet this massive increase in the number of Oregonians who would become eligible," said Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems president and CEO Becky Hultberg in a statement released today.
"From the beginning, the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been unpredictable. At the 11th hour, hospitals shouldered a huge part of the burden for distribution of the doses, with little outside support," Hultberg added. "The fact that the playing field keeps changing makes this work even more difficult in the midst of a pandemic, as our overburdened staffs take care of a surge of patients."
At a Friday afternoon press conference, Brown and Allen were repeatedly asked why they were prioritizing teachers over older Oregonians.
Strikingly, Allen misstated that 30% of the deaths in Oregon are of people 80 or older while in fact the number is over 50%. (He was asked to confirm the number by Aimee Green of The Oregonian, which he did—before being corrected by Green.)
Green also asked if the governor was concerned about delaying the vaccine for elderly Oregonians given that by Green's calculation some 10 older Oregonians a day are continuing to die. (That's outside of nursing homes and other facilities, where the vaccine is available.)
"We are working as hard as we can, as we fast as we can," says Brown. "Oregon has done a remarkable job from a national perspective."
The U.S. has had among the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the world, but when measured against other states, Oregon's outbreak has not killed as many as elsewhere.
An analysis by The New York Times, for example, showed that Oregon's deaths between March 15 and Dec. 19, 2020, were 9% above the typical year, among the lowest increases for any state, though that still amounts to 2,400 more deaths than would be expected. (The state's official death toll from COVID-19 is 1,758. Scientists typically look at excess deaths after a pandemic to have a more complete picture of the disease's impact, given that not all deaths are likely captured in official totals.)
Yet the urgency of speeding up Oregon's fitful vaccine rollout became even more apparent Friday evening, when the state announced a Multnomah County resident had been diagnosed with the faster-spreading variant of the coronavirus that originated in Britain.
That mutation is more transmissible than the original COVID-19 virus, and is expected to intensify the pandemic across the nation.