Oregon Hopes To Step Up Vaccinations; Bringing in National Guard

Oregon will deploy the National Guard in an effort to accelerate the state’s slow rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, with stepped up efforts to get doses into the hands of pharmacies, health care providers and others.

Gov. Kate Brown said at a news conference on Friday that National Guard troops will assist Salem Health with a vaccination clinic on Tuesday in the state fairgrounds. She said the aim would be go vaccinate 250 people an hour.  Brown has asked the Oregon Health Authority to speed up vaccinations to 12,000 people a day starting next Friday.

"This is an all hands on deck effort," she said. 

Oregon health care professionals have administered nearly 75,000 shots since the campaign started three weeks ago -- only about a quarter of the 250,100 vaccination doses the state has in stock. 

But if President-elect Joe Biden’s plans become reality, Oregon will have to step up the pace. Biden wants his new administration to deliver 100 million doses of the vaccines throughout the United States by the 100th day of his new administration, which begins Jan. 20, The New York Times reported Friday.

The vaccine is distributed based on each state’s population. Under that formula, Oregon’s share over the coming 15 weeks would be about 1.3 million doses. Biden’s plan adds yet another wildcard to Oregon’s vaccine rollout as the nation ushers in a new administration in Washington. 

Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said at the news conference it will be “many months” before enough Oregonians are vaccinated to reach herd immunity to end the pandemic. Allen didn’t directly reference Biden’s plans, but he noted the federal government’s messaging has been “much more optimistic” than the reality the state is facing. That makes it a challenge to explain and justify the lengthy timeline for inoculating the great majority of the state’s 4.2 million population, Allen said.

“I think fall is a reasonable target,” Allen said, but he cautioned that the picture continually changes with variables like mutant strains of the virus. “We keep learning new things seemingly every day about this virus.”

In a statement to The Lund Report, Charles Boyle, a spokesman for the governor's office, said the goal of 12,000 doses a day matches the vaccine shipments Oregon expects by Jan. 17 from the federal government, "but  we fully expect Oregon to ramp up distribution further as more vaccines become available."

"When President-elect Biden delivers on his promise to administer 100 million vaccine doses nationwide, we will be ready to work around the clock to ramp up distribution," Boyle said.

The federal government has rationed dosage shipments to states, saying it wants to make sure states get enough doses to give a second dose to each person who has received a first dose, at the correct interval, according to news reports. The doses are recommended to be given three to four weeks apart, depending on the vaccine. But Biden said he wants to push out as many doses as soon as possible, giving more people a first shot. Both vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech which have been approved for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration require two doses for full inoculation. Biden said he will use his emergency powers as president to require manufacturers to produce enough to provide second shots, according to news reports.

Allen said the doses are sent by the federal government or manufacturers to Oregon hospitals and other health care providers, and are not in the custody of the state.

As of Friday, Oregon had received about 250,100 doses and had administered 74,914 doses. Oregon has given at least one dose to about 1.5% of its population and ranks 36th in the nation, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s not good enough to be in the middle of the pack,” Allen said.

West Virginia is the leading state, having given 4.9% of its population a single shot, according to a The New York Times’ database.

Brown and Allen also talked Friday about the state’s efforts to hit the 12,000-dose-per-day goal.

“We’re making steady progress toward achieving our goal of 12,000 vaccines administered per day,” Brown said. “OHA is working with health care providers, pharmacies, and local public health partners to achieve that goal.”

In the state’s current phase of vaccine administration, those who can get a shot are health care workers, residents and employees at nursing homes and first responders. However several hospitals -- including Oregon Health & Science University, Providence Health & Services -- have been vaccinating all their employees, even those who face no risk of becoming infected.

Brown said OHSU is now working to vaccine home health care workers and those in behavioral health and other fields.

For the initial phase, the Oregon National Guard will deploy about 160 personnel for the vaccination effort. The work will include support efforts in Salem and five mobile teams, said Stephen Bomar, a spokesman for the Oregon Military Department, in an email to The Lund Report.

“We are scheduled to be supporting OHA’s efforts in a phased approach with both fixed and mobile sites across Oregon with additional service members as well,” Bomar said.

Those deployed include medical doctors, physician assistants and medics.

The next group of people on the vaccination list -- in category 1b -- includes teachers and school support staff. Public health officials are still working to prioritize essential workers, which includes grocery store workers and truck drivers. It’s unclear when the general public and non-priority people under 75 and in good health will have access to vaccinations.

Oregon’s vaccine rollout process has been bumpy and sluggish. Public health officials scrambled to open up the first phase of people to receive the vaccine, to include all types of health care workers. That prompted an outcry from health care workers in outpatient clinics who had to wait for vaccinations, even while office and billing staff in hospitals got shots ahead of them. 

The state made those moves before its vaccine advisory committee met for the first time this week. The committee is supposed to decide the hierachy of the next groups to be vaccinated. It took the health authority several months to decide who should serve on the committee, and the first three-hour meeting did not even get through the planned agenda. The group is supposed to ensure that Oregon's vaccination campaign is equitable among groups that have been the hardest hit, like Latinos, tribal communities, Blacks and seniors.

Brown and Allen on Friday defended the pace of the work and the planning. 

“We’re working as hard as we can,” Brown said.
Allen said information about which vaccines are available “have been in extreme flux,” adding it was better to convene the group when more information was available. 

Allen said: “This is a complicated vaccine to distribute. It’s more complicated than we expected when we made our initial plans.”

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


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