SALEM, Ore. — Despite ongoing struggles with the relative scarcity of coronavirus vaccine doses, Governor Kate Brown and Oregon health officials expressed optimism on Friday that three-quarters of all eligible groups — including the large population of seniors — would be able to get their first doses by early April.
Friday's estimate marked a leap from the previous approximation of early May, in the face of accusations that Oregon has been "overpromising" its vaccine supply line. State officials cautioned that any projection hinges on the federal government's ability to deliver the promised shipments.
"By early April, everyone [eligible] who wants a vaccine should be able to get one . . . it's just going to take some time," said Oregon Health Authority director Patrick Allen in a Friday press conference.
The first group of independent seniors, those 80 and older, ostensibly become eligible for vaccination under Oregon's plan on Monday, just two weeks after educators and childcare workers. At the same time, a federal court ruling earlier this week mandated that inmates of Oregon's prison system become eligible as part of the early Phase 1a group, requiring that prisoners begin receiving the vaccine as well.
Allen admitted that there will be "some degree of chaos" beginning next week due to the rapid increase in eligible people. There are more than 150,000 Oregonians in the 80 and older group, and more than 750,000 seniors in total who will become eligible over the course of February.
"I want to thank our seniors for their patience thus far, and for their continued patience in the coming days and weeks," said Governor Brown. "We are still managing a scarce resource. There will be hiccups in this process, but we are going to get through them. Signing up for an appointment will look different based on your community and your health care provider."
By late February, an estimated 1.3 million Oregonians will have become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine under Oregon's current plan, up from 550,000 at present.
Allen said that state officials are asking older Oregonians for patience, promising that every senior who wants the vaccine will eventually receive it.
"Many seniors and their family members will be frustrated in trying to secure a vaccination appointment next week," Allen said.
Adults in custody represent another 12,000 people, not including inmates currently incarcerated in county jails or young people in youth correctional facilities. Inmates will begin receiving their first doses this week, starting with a batch of 5,000 doses. Governor Brown indicated that correctional facilities across the state would receive 5,000 doses each week until all inmates are vaccinated.
Both Brown and Allen said that the Biden administration has promised a surge in vaccine shipments over the next few weeks, including a more than 20 percent increase in the number of vaccine doses distributed to the state, plus those that are heading to retail pharmacies participating in the federal program.
The federal surge gives officials confidence in the projection that 75 percent of current eligible groups, in addition to the full population of seniors, will be able to receive at least their first dose of the vaccine by early April. Allen said that he anticipated those same groups would receive their second doses by late May.
Governor Brown on Friday marked the "grim milestone" of Oregon surpassing 2,000 deaths attributed to coronavirus since the pandemic began. But both Brown and Allen underlined Oregon's relatively strong position in the U.S. in regards to COVID-19, with some of the lowest infection and mortality rates in the nation.
Oregon has also shot up from near the bottom of states in percentage of population vaccinated as of early January, up to 12th in the country as of early February.
Allen directed people with questions about getting vaccinated to OHA's COVID-19 vaccine page, and encouraged seniors to call 211 or text ORCOVID to 898211 for questions. However, Allen said, there is still not statewide hotline for people with questions about making vaccine appointments due to the variety of different circumstances in each individual county.
Beginning on Monday, Brown said that the OHA vaccine page will include a new tool called "Get Vaccinated Oregon" — developed with Google's help — that can help people figure out their eligibility and sign up for email or text alerts when they become eligible.
The difference in vaccine availability county-by-county will likely be stark in the week's ahead. While Klamath County has already begun setting up clinics for seniors 80 and older beginning this weekend — before official eligibility begins on February 8 — there is no indication yet that providers in counties like Jackson or Josephine will be able to begin vaccinating seniors early next week.