But with 4.2 million Oregonians potentially in line to be vaccinated, much remains unclear about the state’s capacity to oversee an unprecedented mass immunization program that will stretch well into 2021, if not longer.
Oregon officials said they are expecting at least 147,000 vaccine doses this month. That’s more than initially anticipated and enough to provide the first of two doses to at least 100,000 people, a state spokesman said, with health care workers at the front of the line.
The plan hinges on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approving two vaccines for emergency use, which it is widely expected to do in the coming days.
“I know these are the vaccines we have all been waiting for,” Gov. Kate Brown said during a news conference Friday. “I am asking you all to buckle down for just a little bit longer.”
Months of hardship will pass before most Oregonians can get immunized — the key to ending the pandemic, saving untold lives, fully opening stores and restaurants and allowing friends and family to start guiltlessly coming together again.
Indeed, Friday set a new record for daily coronavirus cases and deaths, topping 2,000 newly confirmed or suspected infections and 30 fatalities. And the worst is almost certainly yet to come, with state health officials predicting 2,000 to 2,700 people will test positive for the virus each day by Christmas Eve.
Still, after 10 months of uncertainty, Friday’s official announcement of expected shipment dates for concrete numbers of vaccine doses offered some measure of optimism for a state that, like the rest of the world, has grown weary.
Assuming the vaccine gets federal approval, a 35,100-dose batch of a vaccine created by pharmaceutical company Pfizer will be shipped on Dec. 15. Tests have shown the vaccine has no serious side-effects and prevents illness in 95% of people who get both of the doses it needs to be effective, the company has said.
Another 40,950 doses of the Pfizer vaccine will be shipped the following week, as well as 71,900 doses of a vaccine developed by pharmaceutical company Moderna. That company has said its vaccine protects 94.5% of those who get the two mandatory shots and is also safe.
The state expects another 87,750 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 31,700 doses of the Moderna vaccine to be shipped Dec. 29. Those batches will be used to provide a second dose to those who have already received the first.
“This is, no doubt, terrific news,” said Patrick Allen, director of the agency leading the state’s coronavirus response, the Oregon Health Authority, also noting that the numbers are subject to change.
The state drafted a vaccine distribution plan Nov. 6 that outlines in broad brush strokes how officials intend to prioritize who gets access first.
The initial limited doses will go to the state’s approximately 300,000 frontline health care workers and 60,000 to 70,000 senior care home residents and staff.
Next on the priority list will likely be essential workers, people with chronic health conditions and people over 65.
One key challenge to distributing the vaccine will be the extraordinarily cold temperatures one of them requires to remain viable. The Pfizer vaccine must be stored at -94 degrees Fahrenheit.
The state said it would consider a “hub system,” in which providers who are able to store the vaccine get enough doses to then distribute to providers who are not. The Oregon Health Authority plans to map out where in the state providers are able to keep the vaccine at such low temperatures and decide which vaccine to send where depending on the results.
Health equity is also key to Oregon’s vaccination plan. The state has pledged to work closely with community organizations to make sure the plan is developed in tandem with groups representing those disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
Among other things, the groups will help find gaps in access and figure out why certain people might not trust government officials – both barriers to broad vaccination.
The health authority will also form a vaccine advisory committee, to include representatives from marginalized groups, to help it decide how to allocate the vaccine.
Black Oregonians have been infected at 3.5 times the rate of whites, state data show, and Hispanic people have been infected at 5.1 times the rate of people who are not Hispanic.
“The Oregon Health Authority recognizes the impact that longstanding health inequities, which are rooted in systemic racism and oppression, are having on the transmission and prevalence of COVID-19 in Oregon,” the health agency wrote in its month-old draft plan, which has not been updated.
The agency also singled out people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. While not inherently at greater risk of complications, people with such disabilities are more likely than the rest of the population to have underlying medical conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Other at-risk groups include those in prison, those experiencing homeless, migrant workers, students and people who don’t have health insurance.
It could be months before even the prioritized groups get vaccinated. About 700,000 doses will be needed to vaccinate all health care workers and senior care home staff and residents, Allen said. The batch coming this December will be enough to get just a fraction of the priority groups their first vaccine dose.
Another complication is the time it takes manufacturers to produce the vaccines, Allen said.
“It’s going to be a while before the vaccine is going to be available to regular Oregonians,” Allen said.
While President Trump pushed for a vaccine before the Nov. 3 election, federal regulators have been methodical in ensuring safety before approving it for nearly 330 million Americans. The United Kingdom this week approved use of the Pfizer vaccine, which America is expected to greenlight soon.
Researchers are currently testing 58 vaccines on humans, according to The New York Times, and at least 87 others are being tested in animals.
Brown and Allen touched on the controversial topic of vaccine safety, a hot-button issue in recent years, particularly in Oregon.
“When it is my turn to receive a vaccine,” Brown said, “I will be ready to take it.”
Until vaccines are available to the broader population, however, Allen and Brown are asking Oregonians to stick to the tried-and-true methods they have been hammering for months: staying at home, avoiding gatherings, wearing a mask and washing hands frequently.
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