Two of the state’s top priorities are to ramp up vaccinations in Oregon and get children back into classrooms, Gov. Kate Brown announced Friday.
For the former, Brown said she will be deploying the Oregon National Guard to assist with COVID-19 vaccination efforts to help reach the goal she set earlier this week of administering 12,000 vaccine doses a day.
National Guard members will be providing vaccine support in Oregon starting last weekend at a mass vaccination event at the state fairgrounds in Salem, Brown said. The goal is to vaccinate 250 people per hour and guard members will be providing logistical and nursing support.
The Oregon Health Authority has delivered vaccine doses to 190 sites across the state already and expects to allocate doses to an additional 30 next week, OHA Director Pat Allen said.
The 12,000 vaccine doses per day plan comes on the heels of a raised COVID-19 transmission rate across the state, Allen said. The transmission rate estimates how many people an infected person will spread the virus to; a transmission rate of 1.0 would indicate that a person with the virus passes it to one other person.
The state’s estimated state transmission rate fell in late November to 0.8 and stayed low through mid-December, but the winter holidays brought a sharp increase, Allen said.
The estimate the OHA has, as of Dec. 23, is a transmission rate between 1.14 and 1.45.
“This estimation does not reflect any potential further increase in transmission related to social gatherings over Christmas and New Year’s Eve,” Allen said. “This means we could continue to see a sharp increase in diagnosed cases.”
In the effort to get students back into classrooms, Brown announced in December the state guidance and metrics on when districts can be reopened moved from mandatory to advisory — giving districts more local control. The change took effect at the start of the new year.
“All of our schools will still be required to adhere to health and safety measures,” Brown said. “They must continue to work in close consultation with local public health departments.”
Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education, said two factors remain important for districts determining when students will return to in-person instruction. The first is to ensure community case rates stay low so COVID-19 is not regularly introduced to the schools and disrupting the learning environment. The second is the district’s ability to implement health and safety protocols and requirements for the schools
The department has over 160 health and safety protocols that need to be in place at schools that reopen and remain mandatory, he said. Some of the requirements include entry screening protocols, use of facial coverings, physical distancing, cohorting and frequent hand washing.
“These protocols are mitigating the risk of transmission in schools in Oregon and across the country, and really around the world, when they are implemented with fidelity,” Gill said.
The state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee met for the first time Thursday and approved teachers and staff at K-12 schools to be next in line for the vaccine after the phase 1-A group which includes emergency responders, healthcare workers and residents and staff at long-term care facilities.
“I know the impacts for our children — having to learn online— have been very, very challenging,” Brown said. “Not just from an educational standpoint, but from a social and emotional standpoint, also from a social interaction standpoint. It’s been really challenging for our children, so this needs to be a priority.”
Further decisions about which groups of people will next be prioritized for vaccinations will be decided in the coming weeks.