Challenges Persist As Oregon Moves Vaccine Rollout To Final Stage

Oregon’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout will move to its final stage on Monday amid persistent challenges that underscore the urgency of the pandemic. 

COVID-19 cases are on the rise again, and stubborn variants pose a threat. The state has struggled to adequately vaccinate Latinos in proportion to other ethnicities. Health officials are uncertain how long the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will remain in limbo amid a federal suspension and review after rare blood clots formed in six women outside Oregon who received the vaccine. Less than a week ago, Johnson & Johnson was one cornerstone of the state’s plan as the only vaccine that requires just one dose. The other two vaccines, manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna, require two doses spaced several weeks apart.

Plus, no one is sure what portion of Oregon’s population will decline to be vaccinated.

On Monday, the state will make everyone 16 and older eligible for COVID-19 vaccines against this backdrop of obstacles that stand between the pandemic and its defeat after a more than year-long war. Gov. Kate Brown and Oregon Health Authority officials on Friday urged Oregonians to make an appointment for a vaccine and continue to practice distancing, wear a mask and avoid large gatherings.

“My message to Oregonians is this: If you haven’t already had a chance to get vaccinated, make a plan to do so now,” Brown said in a press briefing.

So far, more than 1.5 million of Oregon’s 4.2 million residents -- 36% --have received at least one vaccine dose. Nearly one million people are fully vaccinated with both doses or the Johnson & Johnson vaccine before state officials halted its use. That’s about 23% of the state’s population.

For now, the state is planning its vaccine rollout now without Johnson & Johnson doses in the mix, Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said.

Without the Johnson & Johnson doses, the state projects it will receive about 154,000 first doses every week through early May. The Johnson & Johnson doses would have added another 70,000 doses a week to the state’s supply lines.

“We’ll continue to see tight appointment availability for the coming week, at least until we know more about the availability of Johnson & Johnson,” Allen said. 

Even so, Allen said the state expects to have enough supplies to vaccinate every Oregonian who wants the vaccine with the first shot by the summer. The state’s rollout will last well beyond that point as health care providers, public health agencies and community organizations seek out hard-to-find individuals. 

Allen said the state needs to do a better job of reaching Latinos with vaccinations and he’s committed to working with Latino leaders to find solutions. His comments came a day after advocacy groups voiced concerns about the low vaccination rates in the Latino community. Just 6% of Oregonians to get vaccinated are Latino, even though they make up 13% of the population.

“I share their frustration,” Allen said. “As a state we can and need to do better.” 

Brown said she has asked the federal government for mobile van units to vaccinate people in each of the state’s hospital regions. Oregon’s COVID-19 response program has six regions statewide, each with a hospital coordinating needs like bed capacity and patient management.

Manufacturers also are researching vaccines for children. Those could be available as early as this fall. They would be a key part of efforts to reach herd immunity, which requires about 75% of the overall population to be vaccinated. No vaccine has yet been approved for children under 16.

Until then, the virus will continue to spread. Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist, said the state has had more than 1,500 cases in the last two days, the highest two-day total since February. So far, 2,457 people in Oregon have died of COVID-19.

Sidelinger said the uptick in cases could lead the state to impose more restrictions, especially in hard-hit counties. At the end of March, 28 of the state’s 36 counties were in the low to moderate risk categories in the state’s system that ranks each county based on COVID-19 infection rates and cases. 

But now, only 22 counties are in the low to moderate risk categories, Sidelinger said. The rankings determine how much counties can open up in sectors like restaurants, entertainment venues and recreational facilities. 

“We are all tired of fighting COVID-19, tired of wearing our masks,” Sidelinger said. “But we must continue to fight as more of us and our families, friends and neighbors get vaccinated.”

You can reach Ben Botkin at [email protected] or via Twitter @BenBotkin1.

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