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LAKE OSWEGO, Ore. — An organization representing Oregon hospitals expressed doubts on Friday that healthcare providers throughout the state would be able to meet Governor Kate Brown's plan to begin vaccinating seniors for coronavirus early next month.
Governor Brown announced last week that Oregon would open up vaccinations to childcare workers, teachers, and other school staff on January 25 — pushing vaccinations for seniors into February. Under this plan, seniors 80 and over would be eligible starting February 8, with progressively younger groups becoming eligible over the following weeks.
In a press briefing on Friday, Brown appeared to stand by that plan, acknowledging criticism of the decision to push back vaccinations for seniors in favor of educators.
"If we were to vaccinate every Oregon senior first, the unfortunate and harsh reality is that many of our educators would not get vaccinated this school year, and Oregon kids would continue to suffer," Brown said. "If we flip that, and prioritize the needs of Oregon kids, it puts a two-week delay on beginning vaccinations for seniors who live independently."
The Oregon Association of Hospital and Health Systems released a statement shortly after that, disagreeing with Brown's assessment — not based on the decision to vaccinate educators first, but because of the relatively short period before vaccinations are opened up to the first group of seniors.
“We are deeply concerned that the Governor, by expanding eligibility to teachers and other school employees in addition to seniors aged 65 and older, is increasing demand for the vaccine far beyond available supply in some regions," said Becky Hultberg, President and CEO of OAHHS. "Since the state does not control the vaccine supply, Oregonians are being asked to take it on faith that the state can keep to the Governor’s timeline."
Hultberg said that there are some regions of the state where supply of the vaccine may be able to meet the demand of both educators and seniors, indicating that those areas should be free to move forward. But other hospitals, Hultberg said, simply will not have enough doses available to meet the challenge.
In particular, Hultberg pointed to the Portland metro area, where she estimated that it would take several weeks to vaccinate teachers, on top of members of Phase 1a who have not yet been vaccinated. Adding 80-year-olds by February 8 would only compound the problem, she said.
"At 15,000 doses a week in the Portland metro area, we should all be honest about the fact that there will be significant wait times for vaccines and that completing our efforts will take many, many months unless supply increases," Hultberg said. "Setting unreasonable expectations will not speed up vaccinations but will lead to confusion on the part of Oregon seniors, and will increase the operational burden borne by hospitals tasked with explaining to those who believe they have a place in line that they will have to wait even longer."
Brown said on Friday that there have been strides made in the vaccination effort over the past several weeks, claiming that all nursing home residents in the state who wanted to receive the vaccine had been inoculated. Many of Oregon's coronavirus-related deaths have come from outbreaks at these kinds of facilities, where the residents are likely to be particularly vulnerable — both by reason of age and by existing medical conditions.
"I have prioritized protecting seniors since day one of this response and, as a result, Oregon is faring better than nearly every other state in the nation in protecting vulnerable seniors," said Governor Brown. "Oregon has the second lowest COVID-19 infection rate among seniors in the country, and the third lowest death rate among people 65 and older."
According to a timeline provided by the Oregon Health Authority on Friday, health officials anticipate that a significant number of educators and seniors — 78 percent, a little over the percentage of Phase 1A member currently vaccinated — won't be inoculated until early May, based on the number of doses currently allocated to Oregon.
The plan for vaccinating educators before the first group of seniors becomes eligible on February 8 is ambitious. OHA hopes to have more than half of teachers and school staff vaccinated by that time, just over two weeks from now.
According to that timeline, another group of seniors will become eligible every week after February 8. Seniors 75 and over during the week of February 14, 70 and older on February 21, and 65 and older on February 28.