Oregon is once again scrambling its priority list for COVID-19 vaccinations, with some seniors pushed from next weekend to March.
Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Health Authority blamed the whipsawing schedule on unreliable information from the Trump Administration as it wraps up its final days in office.
“This is a deception on a national scale,” Brown said.
The change came as OHA reported late Friday that a Multnomah County resident was the first known case in Oregon of a highly infectious variant of COVID-19.
Brown announced Tuesday that those 65 and older were now eligible for vaccination beginning Jan. 23. Teachers and child care providers would also start receiving inoculations the same day.
Oregon’s speedier rollout of inoculations was announced soon after U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Jan. 12 that vaccine it was holding back would be released. It was an unexpected windfall for states worried about scarcity in coming weeks.
Federal officials also recommended opening up vaccine availability to those 65-and-over once the first priority group of health workers and people in long-term care facilities were vaccinated.
The timing meant older Oregonians, who are the most susceptible to serious illness and death from COVID-19, would get inoculations earlier.
But the optimism soon evaporated. Federal officials told Brown and Oregon Health Director Pat Allen that there had been a miscommunication.
Actually, no additional vaccine at all would be on its way.
“I thought I was losing my mind,” Allen said, “I went back and reviewed the actual C-SPAN video of Secretary Azar, and the words he used were ‘releasing the entire supply.’ He talked about physical inventory. It was incredibly clear.”
In response, Brown on Friday said the state would have to revise its priority list for the second time in one week.
The new rollout also underlined an already controversial decision by the governor to place school teachers and staff above the elderly on the priority list.
After the current Phase 1a of vaccinations for health care workers, inoculations for K-12 educators and school workers would start Jan. 25 statewide. Brown had targeted Feb. 15 for reopening in-class teaching.
Grant County has already completed most of its Phase 1a vaccinations and moved on to educators Friday. A clinic for people 65 and older was scheduled Tuesday for Grant County residents.
But, outside of Grant County, older Oregonians who are not in long-term care facilities would be placed into four priority tiers. Those over 80 would begin vaccinations on Feb. 8. Those over 75 come next a week later, on Feb. 15. Over 70 would begin Feb. 22 and over 65 on March 1.
Despite criticism that she was putting schooling over lives, Brown has stuck with her decision to prioritize getting schools reopened. She said virtual learning had left many students, particularly in less-affluent districts, falling behind. She also pointed to an uptick in teenage suicides due to the long isolation.
Brown said she didn’t know if any other state was giving teachers the same higher priority. A Centers for Disease Control model program sent to the states has at-risk elderly in the group to be vaccinated after health care workers and congregate care residents and staff.
“Each state is doing it differently,” Brown said.
Oregon has more than 200,000 doses of vaccine on hand, enough to ensure that the over 120,000 people who have received their first dose but are awaiting the second can be served. The COVID-19 vaccinations are given in two doses spread between three and four weeks apart.
Brown said that the Trump Administration had “pulled the rug” out from under hopeful Oregonians.
“I am demanding answers from the Trump Administration,” Brown said. “I am shocked and appalled that they have set an expectation on which they could not deliver, with such grave consequences.”
COVID-19 policy is in the middle of a transition as Trump is replaced by President-elect Joe Biden at noon on Jan. 20. Biden has promised a $20 billion vaccine push once he becomes president, including using the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies to speed up and widen distribution.
“The vaccine rollout in the United States has been a dismal failure so far,” Biden said Friday. “The honest truth is this, things will get worse before they get better. And the policy changes we are going to be making, they’re going to take time to show up in the COVID statistics.”
Biden has set a goal of “100 million vaccine shots into the arms of the American people” by his 100th day in office, April 30.
Brown said she was ready for a more dependable effort from Washington, D.C.
“I am looking forward to working with a federal partner who is competent,” Brown said.
By the time of the inauguration on Jan. 20, the number of Americans killed by COVID-19 is expected to surpass 400,000. The United States accounts for 20% of the two million dead worldwide from the virus. It’s an outsized death toll considering Americans represent just over 4% of the world’s population.
There are new challenges on the horizon. OHA reported the first known case of the virus variant that spreads 50% faster than the one currently dominant in the United States. The CDC said Friday it projects that it will be the dominant type of COVID-19 in the nation by March.
The variant, known as B.1.1.7, first appeared in the United Kingdom in December, where infection rates skyrocketed. It spread to other European countries and has now shown up in California, Colorado and other states. The Oregon Health Authority reported the state’s first case of the variant strain on Friday in Multnomah County.
While no more deadly to each person infected, the higher infection rate of what’s commonly called the “U.K. variant” means rapid growth in cases, hospitalizations and deaths overall.
So far, CDC scientists believe the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that are in distribution are effective against the variant. But the slower-than-expected rollout of vaccines to states and then into residents’ arms is unlikely to keep pace with the exponential growth of infections if the new variant becomes widespread in just over a month.