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Oregon Redistributes Vaccine, Loosens Restrictions

The reallocation comes at a time when cases and hospitalizations are down but the need for vaccines is more urgent than ever with the presence of new variants in the United States.
Oregon Health & Science University is running a mass vaccination site at PDX airport. | OHSU
January 29, 2021

Half of Oregon counties have accelerated ahead of the others in their vaccination rollout, prompting state officials to temporarily reduce or pull back vaccines from the more advanced counties so that areas like the tri-county Portland region can catch up. 

State public health officials said the reallocation is necessary to keep the state as a whole on track with vaccinating priority groups. 

Eighteen counties have sought to move beyond K-12 educators and the 1a group, which includes health care workers, long-term care residents and staff and caregivers. As a result, they have seen their allocation of vaccine supplies temporarily halted or reduced so other counties can get more supplies to complete vaccination of their 1a group members. 

Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said the state is three-quarters of the way through vaccinating the phase 1a group. That group is estimated at 300,000 to 400,000 people.

“We know not every county is at the same stage,” Allen said at a Friday press conference.

Public health officials were unable to say at the press event which counties have seen their vaccine allocation stop entirely as the state redirects supplies to get other counties caught up. Oregon Health Authority officials didn’t respond to an emailed follow-up request for information about that. 

Counties that have asked to move past teachers and the 1a group include Deschutes County and primarily rural counties stretching from eastern Oregon to the coast, such as Baker, Malheur and Tillamook counties. Besides the tri-county metro region, other counties that are still vaccinating the 1a group and have a high need for more vaccine include Umatilla, Polk and Columbia counties. 

This week, the state allowed vaccinations to begin for about 150,000 K-12 educators, school support staff and early childhood instructors and related workers.That move means that senior citizens age 80 and older will be unable to get a shot until at least the second week of February, unless they live in a long-term care facility or have a caregiver at home. After that, the state is unrolling its vaccinations for younger seniors week by week, so that seniors age 65 and older can be vaccinated starting the week of Feb. 28.

State public health officials said that they could speed up vaccinations if the federal government sent more doses.

“I want to be clear,” Allen said. “Oregon has the infrastructure in place. … If we receive more vaccines, we can vaccinate more people sooner.”

So far, nearly 315,000 Oregonians have started or completed the vaccination process, which requires two doses several weeks apart. Of those, 63,089 people are fully vaccinated.

The state hopes to reach at least 70% immunization of each priority group to achieve herd immunity. But so far, the group immunization percentages vary from county to county. 

For the senior citizen population, the state anticipates it would have “critical mass” of that population inoculated by late April or early May, allowing the next group -- phase 1b -- to start in early May.

“It’s important that as a state we’re addressing these local variations,” Allen said.

Cases, Hospitalizations Plunge

The state’s vaccine advisory committee recommended on Thursday that the next four groups in the 1b category move forward concurrently, after the state is done vaccinating seniors age 65 and above.

Those four groups are: adults age 16 to 64 with underlying medical conditions, frontline workers, inmates and people in low-income and congregate housing. The state is working on defining who falls in the frontline workers group.

There are bright spots, but also storm clouds on the horizon. 

Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state epidemiologist, said the state has seen a dramatic decline in daily cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks. On Dec. 1, the state had 577 people with COVID-19 in hospitals. As of Thursday, the number was 291, a nearly 50%  decline, Sidelinger said. 

As of Jan. 13, the transmission rate was 0.81, which means that overall, less than one person gets infected from someone else with COVID-19. A transmission rate above 1.0 means that more people get infected from each new case, snowballing into a wider problem. 

“It is considerably slowing,” Sidelinger said.

But he said it’s a “fragile balance” and Oregon has to remain committed to fighting the virus, particularly as new variants of the virus have entered the state.

A highly infectious British variant of the novel coronavirus has emerged in Oregon, along with a variant from Southern California.  Oregon State University scientists said Friday they discovered the British strain, dubbed B.1.1.7, in Corvallis and Bend. 

Oregon Health & Science University found the variant in the Portland area. Earlier this month, the Oregon Health Authority reported cases in Multnomah, Washington and Yamhill counties. 

The California strain --  in the United States since March -- was discovered in Corvallis, Albany, Forest Grove, Klamath Falls, Lincoln City and Silverton, OSU said Friday.

There’s some evidence that the California strain could thwart a COVID-19 treatment for infected people that relies on antibodies. A mutation of the British variant -- and ones from Brazil and South Africa -- that affects the spike protein on the surface of the virus appears to make it more easily transmissible. There’s also concern about whether the variants are resistant to antibodies produced by existing vaccines.

The threats add urgency to the daunting task of inoculating at least 70% of the population, the general benchmark for herd immunity.

(See related story: Universities Report More Potentially Problematic Virus Variants.)

State Shifts Data Releases

Allen also defended the authority’s move to cut back on the release of specific data like the ages of people who have died from COVID-19 in daily reports released publicly. The authority announced the decision this week, drawing criticism for cutting back on information at a time when the state’s decision to vaccinate educators before senior citizens faces scrutiny because about 90% of COVID-19 deaths involve people age 60 and older. Prior to the change, the state provided considerable detail about each death, including their age, whether they died at home or in a hospital and if the person had underlying medical conditions. 

Allen said the practice of assembling detailed fatality information, which the state has provided daily for nearly 10 months, is now too “labor intensive.” Allen said the data now will flow into a dashboard that the public can access to analyze trends, adding that the goal is to try to automate that process and free up staff for other work. 

However, after Allen’s 11 a.m. press conference, Gov. Kate Brown tweeted that she has directed the health agency to disclose all data on COVID-deaths weekly, including each person’s age, where they died, underlying health conditions and when they tested positive. 

“This is in addition to daily data updates that include reported deaths by age bracket, allowing for both timely updates on a daily basis and full and accurate information on a weekly basis,” Brown said in the tweet.

People on social media were quick to point out that for nearly a year, the state has provided that information on a daily basis.

“What would be even more timely would be for @OHAOregon to continue providing this information daily like they were until this week,” said one follower on Twitter.

Indoor Activities Change 

Separately, the state on Friday allowed indoor recreational facilities to reopen, albeit with tight restrictions. 

For facilities that are 500 square feet or more, the rules allow up to four separate groups of people at a time. Each group can have up to six people, and each group must exercise in a separate enclosed area from the other groups, which means up to 24 customers at a time can be at one facility. The state’s rules forbid full-contact sports. 

Customers and staff will need to practice increased social distancing. Each group can have people from more than one household. But members of different households need to stay at least 25 feet apart from each other, even if they are in the same group. 

Sidelinger said the rules stem from the increased risks of airborne transmission of the virus as people breathe deeper and their masks dampen during exercise.

In a statement, Planet Fitness, which has 21 locations in Oregon, said it wants to continue working with Brown and the health authority on a solution, noting its facilities are large.

“Under the new guidelines, we’re concerned about the inability to provide our members and guests the fitness experience they are looking for,” the franchise owners said in a statement. “The average Planet Fitness is over 20,000 square feet and we believe we can provide more than adequate distance in our fitness centers to allow members to safely participate in physical activity.”

Between May and November last year, Oregon Planet Fitness locations had 1.2 million check-ins. 

Lynne Terry contributed to this report.

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