Under pressure from federal officials, Gov. Kate Brown announced Tuesday that she’ll allow all Oregonians 65 and older to be eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations starting Jan. 23 — at least a month earlier than expected.
On her own accord, Brown also said she would allow childcare, preschool and K-12 school employees to start receiving vaccinations the same day, triggering what will be an unprecedented wave of people seeking vaccinations in a state that has struggled to administer shots quickly.
Brown’s decision to expand vaccinations to older Oregonians came in response to urging from U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who earlier in the day said all states should start vaccinating Americans who are 65 or older and people with underlying conditions that put them at higher risk for serious complications from COVID-19.
Azar said the federal government would no longer hold onto second doses of the vaccines before shipping them out — and that would free up more doses to send to states to vaccinate this new group of vulnerable Americans.
“While this is an unexpected change in course from the federal government, receiving more vaccines is welcome news for states — and Oregon is ready to devote all resources necessary to ramp up distribution with our health care partners,” Brown said in a statement Tuesday evening announcing the eligibility change.
Plans are already underway, she added, “to ensure Oregon seniors and educators have ready access to a vaccine.” Brown doesn’t plan to prioritize Oregonians with underlying conditions at this time.
The abrupt shift from Brown follows other states that already had outlined plans to inoculate seniors, and it comes without any clear expectation about precisely how many more vaccine doses Oregon will receive from the federal government in coming weeks. A spokesman for Brown said he didn’t know how many additional doses would arrive in Oregon, which previously expected just over 1.1 million from December through February, setting up the potential for widespread demand but inadequate vaccine volume.
Oregon got off to a sluggish start since beginning to vaccinate Oregonians last month. The state has limited eligibility to an estimated 500,000 Oregonians as part of Phase 1a, which mostly encompasses healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities but includes others, including jail and prison employees and veterinary care workers.
Brown and officials for the Oregon Health Authority as recently as Friday resisted the idea of allowing seniors to be vaccinated before late next month, saying teachers and school staff would be prioritized next, with other recommendations to be made by an advisory committee.
Brown changed course Tuesday but offered no specifics on where Oregonians who soon will be eligible can go to get inoculated. State leaders are still working on a system for getting the information out. Brown expects to provide more details Friday.
“If you are an Oregonian who is newly eligible for vaccination, I am asking for your patience,” Brown said. “Please, do not call your doctor’s office or health care provider with questions about when you can be vaccinated. Today’s news arrived with no advance notice from the federal government. Oregon health care providers are working as fast as humanly possible to shift their vaccine distribution plans to meet this sudden change in national guidance.”
For now, Brown doesn’t plan to heed the federal guidance and prioritize Oregonians with underlying conditions, a population estimated at 1.6 million.
“At this point, there are not nearly enough vaccines available for that large a number of people,” a spokesman, Charles Boyle, said in an email to The Oregonian/OregonLive. “But we will be working with stakeholders to develop outreach and distribution plans so that we will be ready to begin vaccinating Oregonians with underlying health conditions as more vaccines become available.”
To be sure, the newly expanded guidelines will significantly increase the number of residents who are eligible for vaccinations. The governor’s office estimates there are 100,000 childcare, preschool and K-12 workers in the state. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 768,000 people age 65 or older in Oregon. At most, about 21,000 of them already were eligible as part of Phase 1a because they live in longterm care facilities.
That means starting Jan. 23, close to 850,000 additional Oregonians will become eligible for COVID-19 immunizations.
And that will put enormous strain on an already overtaxed vaccination system. According to the state, 115,060 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have made it into the arms of residents, out of 321,425 doses that the CDC says have been shipped to Oregon so far. About 36% of the available stock has been used — a significant improvement from the 25% that had been used about a week ago.
Oregon’s initial rollout has been plagued with ineffective planning since nurses began receiving shots Dec. 16, but state officials say reforms are underway. Over the past week, an average of 7,600 doses have been administered each day. The governor has set a goal of 12,000 per day by next week but acknowledged that the pace would need to accelerate considerably in future weeks.
Patrick Allen, the Oregon Health Authority director, has said at 12,000 daily shots a day it would take well into 2022 to inoculate 70% of the state’s population — about 3 million people — with the two-dose regimen of the vaccines. Seventy percent is the minimum some public health experts say is necessary to reach herd immunity, which is the point the virus is seriously hindered from easily spreading throughout the community.
Elderly residents are at highest risk for death for COVID-19 or life-altering and lasting effects. More than 80% of Americans who’ve died are age 65 or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the past week, 85% of the 110 Oregonians with the disease whose deaths have been reported were age 65 or older.
The Oregon Education Association, the union representing 44,000 educators, wasn’t pushing the governor to prioritize educators before seniors, said union president John Larson. He said seniors are at higher risk of dying than the overall educator population. He also said even if all school employees are vaccinated, he doesn’t believe classrooms should open because students won’t be. The vaccines haven’t been approved for children younger than 16 and they could bring the virus home to their families, he said.
“Putting students and staff safety at risk so people can be back in-person is simply irresponsible,” Larson said.
The only educators Larson said he thinks should be vaccinated now are those who’ve already been pushed back into their classrooms in a select number of school districts.
Tuesday’s news that Brown will soon open up vaccinations to seniors was celebrated with cheers by many older Oregonians.
Portland resident Mike Sisavic, 82, said he and his wife, who is 80, have been eagerly awaiting access to the vaccine. It had been tough to watch and wait — with no information about when their turn in line would come.
Sisavic said although they are both in good health and quite active, they half-jokingly pondered the possibility of temporarily moving into a senior living facility so they’d qualify for the vaccine in Phase 1a. Sisavic also said when he found out the staff of his physical therapist and the clinic staff working the phones were going to be vaccinated soon, “I said, ‘How about you hire me for a few hours?’ ”
He said advice offered by the governor and Oregon Health Authority leaders as recently as last week — that seniors hang tight and stay home for an undetermined amount of time until their turns arrived — didn’t seem practical. Although Sisavic and his wife take precautions, they still could be exposed to the virus, he said. He’s on a softball team. His wife plays tennis regularly. When restaurants were open, they’d patronize them. Now they do takeout.
“We’re living as well as we can,” Sisavic said.
— Aimee Green; firstname.lastname@example.org; @o_aimee