Oregon state officials brace for chaos in the vaccine rollout while Gov. Brown continues to receive criticism

Oregon officials at the state and county levels are bracing for chaos in the vaccination rollout as seniors who are living independently are now eligible for the vaccine, beginning with those who are 80 years and older. Meanwhile Gov. Kate Brown continues to receive criticism from the House and Senate Republican Caucuses about the vaccine rollout. 

 

 

Brown received criticism from policymakers and hospitals on her choice to prioritize vaccinating teachers ahead of seniors in an effort to return kids to in-person schooling. This change came after the Trump administration had promised extra doses to states. Oregon had decided to vaccinate teachers and seniors at the same time in response to the extra doses, but the doses promised to states did not materialize. 

In an emailed statement to State of Reform, a spokesperson from the Senate Republican Caucus had this to say about Brown’s handling of the vaccine rollout:

“Because the CDC is coordinating directly with the Governor on vaccines, the legislature doesn’t have much authority about how she does things. It makes it even more difficult to hold her accountable and ensure an equitable distribution of vaccines when she holds meetings in secret and doesn’t communicate with the public clearly.”

Two weeks ago Brown directed additional doses to the Tri-County metro area in order to help vaccinate 60,000 eligible health care workers in the 1A group, who were identified through a survey. Of the workers identified only 11,000 were sent invitations to be vaccinated. 

Jessica Guernsey, public health director at Multnomah County Health Department, said that at the time there was a definite need for increased vaccines in the Portland metro area. 

“At that time there was definitely a need for additional vaccines for the size of the population that we serve in the metro area, not just in Multnomah County. But if you look at proportionally at how many health care workers there are [in Multnomah County], vis-a-vis other counties, we have a very large percentage of those populations.”  

The decision to re-allocate these vaccines drew criticism from Republican Legislative leaders Rep. Christine Drazan and Sen. Frank Girod. 

“Without public input, the Governor’s announcement that she is redirecting 32,000 vaccines from rural Oregon to Portland is troubling. Cities and counties across the state, who have faced the brunt of the Governor’s shutdown orders, carefully planned to safely vaccinate their communities have suddenly had their allocations redirected. This is an insult to them and unfair to their communities.”

The vaccine is a scarce resource, says Guernsey, and that the biggest problem county health departments are facing is there is not enough vaccine.

This was echoed by Rep. Maxine Dexter, chair of the House Subcommittee on the COVID-19 Response, who said that rural counties had done well at vaccinating their 1A groups.

“One thing that we have to acknowledge is that with a resource as scarce as the COVID-19 vaccine, true equity is impossible with our present state of scarcity. That doesn’t mean we don’t strive for equity, it just means that we need to understand the reality is that we can only do our best. Rural Oregon has done extremely well in terms of vaccinating their 1A populations relative to the Tri-County area where there is a much higher number of people in the 1a population. I am glad to see these rural counties doing well and I want to make sure they continue to do well. We will need to continue to balance, as was recently done, the supply relative to the demand in the tri-county area to help us better protect these very high risk populations.”

Guernsey said without a full vaccination plan at the federal level, states and counties were forced to make their own plans. 

“The initiation of the vaccine rollout has been slightly chaotic, there really wasn’t a federal distribution plan so we solved that at the state and local level. I would say that the worst of it is behind us, and that we’re all working regionally and statewide quickly to try and have a more coordinated approach.”

Oregon Health Authority (OHA) Director Patrick Allen told the Associated Press that the vaccine rollout will be “chaotic” now that seniors are eligible for the vaccine. 

“It’s probably going to be pretty chaotic here. We are probably going to have phone lines that are hard to get through on. We are going to have scheduling systems that are going to be hard to get appointments.”

But Guernsey said that the communication process with the OHA is leagues better than it was at the start of the process.

“At the beginning there was a lot of chaos on all levels, especially with the last administration. There was not real clear transparent communication and there was no plan… So I think communication has gotten a lot better in the last several weeks, everybody’s been working hundreds of hours to shore things up and while it’s not completely perfect yet, I think we’re getting closer to stronger communication and coordination to make sure that folks can get vaccinated for the amount that we have [available].”

Allen told the Associated Press that the state is now ahead of the vaccination timeline they had projected originally. 

“The fact of the matter is the federal supply has now improved such that we think we are going to be able to be through 75% of everybody who is eligible now, including seniors, which is about 1.3 million people by early April.”

OHA data says there have been just over 425,076 people vaccinated as of Monday morning; 141,874 of those are fully vaccinated.