As COVID-19 cases begin to rise again in Oregon, state officials are expanding the list of individuals eligible to receive a vaccine, despite a reduction in expected supply.
The update to the state’s vaccination plan came Friday in a press conference where Gov. Kate Brown and state health officials described the state’s next several months of pandemic response as a tug-of-war between vaccines and virus spread.
“Over the past two weeks, Oregon has seen our COVID case rates slowly rise. It’s clear that in Oregon and across the country, the fourth surge of this virus is at our doorstep,” Brown said Friday. “But make no mistake, this is a race between the vaccines and the variants. It’s a critical moment for us all to double down so we can outrun this next wave.”
Brown and officials from the Oregon Health Authority announced expansions to the state’s vaccine eligibility: Starting Monday statewide, the household family members of frontline workers, as well as those with a now-wider set of underlying health conditions, will be eligible to receive a shot.
“We know it’s not easy for everyone to find the time and the transportation to get to a vaccination appointment. If you’re a frontline worker making the effort, bring your family members and do it all together,” Brown said.
The new list of eligible underlying health conditions brings the state’s rules in line with federal recommendations, and now includes the following:
- Chronic kidney disease
- Chronic lung conditions including COPD, asthma, cystic fibrosis and pulmonary hypertension
- Down Syndrome
- Dementia or other neurological conditions
- Diabetes, type 1 or 2
- Heart conditions
- HIV infection
- Weakened immune systems
- Liver disease
- Overweight or obesity
- Smoking, current or former
- Sickle cell disease
- Solid organ or blood stem cell transplant
- Stroke or other cerebrovascular disease
- Substance use disorder
A complete list of eligibility definitions is available on the state’s website at covidvaccine.oregon.gov/.
Friday’s change comes as the virus “appears to be rebounding,” according to State Health Officer Dr. Dean Sidelinger.
“We continue to see a general trend of increasing daily cases along with virus-related hospitalizations,” Sidelinger said.
The increases mean some counties could return to higher levels of virus restrictions in the coming weeks as case rates continue to rise, Sidelinger said.
The health officials Friday said they had no plans to change the current virus restriction framework, despite objections from some that the risk level model is too restrictive on businesses, and objections from others that the state should be enacting more restrictions in the face of increased virus spread.
Instead, Brown, Sidelinger and OHA Director Patrick Allen repeatedly stressed the actions residents can take to slow the spread of the virus, even if they’ve already been fully vaccinated: Wearing face coverings, washing hands, maintaining social distancing and getting vaccinated when possible.
“The good news is, now when we face a surge, we know how to protect ourselves and others, with powerful safety measures like mask wearing and avoiding large social gatherings. And we have three safe and effective vaccines rapidly rolling out,” Brown said.
Still, meeting the state’s original vaccination targets is looking to be less of a possibility, as vaccine manufacturer Johnson & Johnson announced this week a production error could force it throw out millions of not-yet-distributed doses.
“That shortfall results in about an eight- or nine-day setback in the timeframe when cumulative doses in Oregon would exceed the number of people who are eligible,” Allen said.
In other words, the state’s projection of when it’ll have vaccinated all eligible adults is moving past its previous late-May projection.
“Oregon will not delay our vaccine eligibility timelines despite the disruption in Johnson & Johnson doses,” Allen said. “However, we may need to temper our hopes of having enough doses to vaccinate all Oregonians over 16 by late May, and bump that expectation back a couple of weeks.”
Allen also said some regions of the state have begun to see a concerning trend of seniors choosing to wait to the get the vaccine, instead of getting it as they become eligible.
Seven in 10 seniors have already gotten vaccinated, but Allen said several counties report less than five in 10 have been vaccinated due to low demand, including Douglas, Gillam, Grant, Lake, Malheur, Morrow and Umatilla.
“The serious risk the virus poses to older adults far outweighs the temporary discomfort and disruption you might experience from getting a vaccine,” Allen said, encouraging older adults not to wait to get vaccinated.
And Sidelinger announced Friday the state detected more than 200 previously unreported cases of a California variant of the virus, which the CDC says can spread more quickly and is less susceptible to some treatments and vaccines.
Those variants and the state’s recent increases in cases suggest a continued need to stay vigilant, according to Brown.
“I’m obviously very concerned about the increased spread of the virus throughout Oregon. That’s why we are working hard to get more Oregonians to get vaccinated, particularly our most vulnerable populations,” Brown said. “I’m asking Oregonians to continue to rely on safety measures.”