Lane Hawkes, emergency room nurse, receives a Covid vaccine at Salem Hospital on Dec. 17 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The much-anticipated Covid vaccine will soon be available to Salem’s dentists, therapists, primary care doctors and other health care workers employed outside of hospitals.

State health officials said Tuesday they were making the vaccine available to to all health care workers, first responders, correctional employees and long-term care facility residents and staff.

Previously, Oregon’s approximately 211,000 doses were only available to a select group of health care employees working in hospitals and urgent care, as well as workers and residents at some long-term care facilities. The narrow focus has left most of the vaccine unused to date, with about three-quarters of available doses sitting in freezers unused.

The move on Tuesday is part of an effort to speed Oregon’s vaccine rollout, which has come under criticism for its slow pace. Only 55,239 doses have been administered so far, about 1.2% of the state's population, according to data from the health authority.

“We need to up our game,” said Pat Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, in a news conference Tuesday.

But the announcement offered few specifics on when vaccines might be available to those now deemed eligible. Dr. Dana Hargunani, the health authority’s chief medical officer, said the health authority would work with hospitals, public health providers and eventually retail pharmacies to offer vaccines to those eligible.

“We expect this step will reduce delays and rapidly increase the number of doses we can administer each day,” Hargunani said.

Oregonians 75 and older, as well as teachers, school employees and other frontline workers will be next in line for the vaccine after health care workers and long-term care facility residents and employees. But state officials have not yet announced specifics for how vaccines will be made available. That round of vaccination is expected to begin in February.

Both Salem Health and Santiam Hospital have received more than enough doses to vaccinate their own employees in recent weeks.

At Salem Health, spokesman Michael Gay said they’ve received about 7,295 doses of vaccine from both Pfizer and Moderna, the two companies with vaccines approved for emergency use in the U.S. Both vaccines require two doses, spaced three to four weeks apart.

The health system has about 5,200 employees and has administered about 3,400 vaccine doses, Gay said, making it available to everyone eligible. He said the hospital had been waiting on more details from the health authority about expanding its vaccination efforts into the community. He said Salem Health plans to begin vaccination clinics tomorrow, though he did not have more details immediately available.

Oregon has been among the slowest states in the U.S. to roll out the vaccine, which public health experts say is the best shot at ending the Covid pandemic and returning to more normal life.

As of Monday, the state ranked 46th for the percentage of shots dispensed, with more than three-quarters of vaccines delivered still sitting in freezers, according to an analysis by Bloomberg.

On Monday, Gov. Kate Brown directed the health authority to increase the pace of vaccinations to 12,000 per day by Jan. 17. Last week, health providers around Oregon vaccinated about 29,000 people.

“Let me be clear: we must vaccinate Oregonians as quickly as possible. Oregon families, schools, and businesses are counting on rapid vaccine distribution. We all are,” Brown said in a statement.

Allen and Hargunani acknowledged Tuesday problems in the state’s planning effort, saying the Covid vaccine posed additional challenges unlike vaccination efforts for flu or other pathogens. Hargunani said the need to track people so they can be notified when it’s time for a second dose of the vaccine, physical distancing requirements for vaccination clinics, cold storage requirements and the need to observe patients for about 15 minutes after the vaccine to monitor for allergic reactions all posed challenges that delayed the rollout.

Allen said the health authority is committed to improving the pace of the rollout.

“We’ve run the first 500 yards of a marathon,” he said

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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