Oregon races against time to ramp up vaccine rollout as wildfire season looms


Oregon health officials are trying to beat the clock getting more shots into millions of arms ahead of another wildfire season.

Monday will mark the moment Oregon opens its priority COVID-19 vaccinations to everyone 16 and up, or roughly 2.6 million Oregonians. Many include the 1.3 million seniors, teachers, farmworkers, and health care professionals who have already been eligible for a jab since late last winter. State health officials warned the public during a Friday news conference with Gov. Kate Brown that open slots may be in short supply.

“We’ll continue to see tight appointment availability for many parts of the state in the coming weeks,” said Oregon Health Authority (OHA) Director Patrick Allen. “There will still be enough doses for everyone to get one, though.”

On Friday, the CDC's COVID Tracker showed about a quarter of Oregonians are fully vaccinated, up from a fifth last week. Another 37% are on their first dose.

As Allen acknowledged once again on Friday, racial disparities still highlight Oregon's vaccine rollout. OHA data shows 71% of the shots going into willing arms to date are white. Racial minorities, especially Hispanics, are getting shots at rates well below their share of the state's population. White people make up about 80% of Oregon's population. Hispanics, by contrast, make up 12% and make up 6% of vaccinations so far.

“Addressing all of these potential barriers to vaccination, it can be done,” said Oregon Latino Health Coalition Executive Director Olivia Quiroz during a virtual news conference this week. “We know we can do a regional approach and get vaccines to our communities. However, doing so will require intentional and deliberate action, and that's why we're here today.”

Allen has said those gaps will close rapidly the further in time the state is from when frontline workers became eligible in March and as vaccinations open up to the general public. The OHA director reassured the public on Friday that despite the state's moratorium on shelling out Johnson & Johnson vaccines under federal guidance, everyone will be eligible for a shot of Pfizer and Moderna's vaccines.

Those who do get a shot in the coming months are unlikely to be in their sunset years. The OHA reports three out of four seniors are now fully vaccinated against the pandemic despite reports that government mismanagement put more at risk in long-term care homes than need be.

Oregon health officials set their hopes this month on receiving 250,000 vaccine doses per week from the federal government. Last week, Oregon saw 220,000 doses cross state lines, including 120,000 of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. This week's vaccine shipment will round out at 100,000 doses thanks to the federal government's decision to pause administration of J&J shots.

The federal moratorium on J&J shots happened earlier this week after six women who received the vaccine began suffering from blood clots. They represent less than .01% of 6.8 million people who have taken the vaccine. The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday J&J researchers have found no link between the vaccine and the phenomenon.

Brown, who granted herself a J&J shot in March, has reported no side effects. The vaccine was also given to Oregon lawmakers earlier this month through a private drive-thru clinic after two COVID cases were reported in the House. Some speculate the Capitol could relax some of its tight health restrictions before state lawmakers adjourn on June 28.

“I think you can imagine us moving toward a more open working environment, you know, another month or so,” state Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, told The Center Square.

As the state enters its second straight week of clear skies and sunshine, Oregon health officials warned unvaccinated Oregonians on Friday to keep their distance, keep their face masks on, and keep up their vigilance as caseload rise. Last week marked the biggest increase in COVID cases and deaths Oregon has seen in five weeks. Between April 5 and April 11, the OHA reported 3,722 new cases, a 26% jump from mid-March, and 47 new deaths from the pandemic.

“We are all tired of fighting COVID – tired of wearing masks, missing our loved ones and keeping our distance – but we must continue to fight,” state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said on Friday.

Through April 22, 14 Oregon counties remain at high risk level, six at moderate risk, and 16 at lower risk, meaning about half the state has reopened indoor dining at 25% capacity at the lower risk tier.

Time is running short for Oregon to get shots into arms before another long wildfire season ignites across the state where temperatures are already hitting the low 80s this weekend. The Oregon Department of Forestry announced on Wednesday it's putting $5 million in state grants to use on 37 statewide wildfire mitigation projects. Burn bans are already in place in seven Western Oregon counties.

On Thursday, Oregon's total caseload stands at 172,931 and its death toll stands at 2,455, the OHA reported.

Oregonians can make their COVID-19 vaccine appointments in one of Oregon's 36 counties via the OHA's website.

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