Agnes Tsai draws up a dose of the Pfizer vaccine during a COVID-19 vaccine clinic at the Oregon State Fairgrounds on Thursday, Jan. 28. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
For weeks, thousands of Salem’s oldest residents have waited for their turn to receive a Covid vaccine. Now, they’ll have to wait a little longer.
The Oregon Health Authority directed just 2,600 first Covid vaccine doses to Marion County for the week of Feb. 8, far fewer than Salem Health had expected to receive as Oregonians 80 and older become eligible for shots on Monday.
“I was pretty shocked and angry. I’m not going to mince words about this,” Cheryl Wolfe, Salem Health CEO, told Salem Reporter.
Salem Health is receiving only second vaccine doses, destined for people who received their first inoculation several weeks ago. The first doses are headed to Marion County’s health department.
Wolfe said Salem Health will receive about 1,000 doses from the county and use those doses to operate a one-day vaccine clinic in Woodburn targeted at child care providers and older residents. The details are still being finalized.
The Woodburn ZIP code has among the highest rates of Covid of any ZIP code in Oregon.
The low allocation means the hospital won’t be able to reopen its clinic at the state fairgrounds to new appointments for seniors or any remaining educators and health care workers who haven’t been vaccinated, Wolfe said.
Oregon Health Authority officials said Friday the decision reflects an effort to equalize vaccination rates across the state in the face of an insufficient supply.
“Not every person 80 and above will be able to get vaccinated Feb. 8. Many seniors and their families will be frustrated,” Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen said in a news conference Friday. He cautioned the rollout to seniors would involve “some degree of chaos” next week.
Allen said Salem Health should receive higher allocations in coming weeks as more doses become available from the federal government.
“These vaccines are the most in-demand product in modern history,” Gov. Kate Brown said during a news conference.
It’s the second week Marion County has received a far lower supply of Covid vaccine after Salem Health opened Oregon’s first large-scale vaccination clinic at the state fairgrounds on Jan. 7.
“We’ve gone two weeks now with essentially no first doses in Marion County,” Wolfe said. “We understood the allocation from last week for this week. I can’t tell you I understand this allocation.”
The fairgrounds clinic, which was vaccinating up to 3,000 people daily, helped propel Marion County to one of the highest vaccination rates among Oregon counties early in the rollout.
The Oregon Health Authority lowered vaccine allocations the week of Feb. 1 for counties which have finished vaccinating health care workers and others, redirecting thousands of vaccine doses to the Portland Metro area, which had struggled to keep up. The Feb. 8 allocations follow the same pattern, documents show.
But Wolfe said the allocation doesn’t square with the state’s goals of health equity or reaching people who have been hardest hit by Covid in Oregon.
Woodburn has a higher Covid case rate than any county in the Portland Metro area, state data shows. The area is home to many of the region’s food and agricultural workers, who have been disproportionately sickened with Covid in part because of large outbreaks at food processing plants.
Marion County is about 27% Latino, higher than Oregon’s average. In Oregon and across the U.S., Latinos and people of color have been disproportionately sickened by Covid, in part because they’re more likely to work in service or agricultural jobs that can’t be done remotely, and to live in multigenerational homes where the virus can spread more easily between family members.
Wolfe said the county’s demographics, which include a higher share of people with disabilities, people with underlying health conditions and non-native English speakers than Oregon averages, should get more weight as the state allocates scarce vaccines. The county’s death and hospitalization rates from the virus have also been higher than state averages, and Salem Hospital has cared for more Covid patients than any other hospital in Oregon, she said.
“This is a health crisis in our community, which is why we started the mass vaccination clinic in our county to begin with,” Wolfe said.
Salem Health chose the location at the fairgrounds because it’s accessible by bus and located in another ZIP code with a high rate of Covid cases.
For the week of Feb. 8, all of Oregon’s first doses of Pfizer vaccine, 14,625 shots in total, is heading to the Portland Metro area’s joint vaccination clinic, according to documents from OHA.
The state’s 37,800 first doses of Moderna vaccine are being split among county public health departments, tribes and a handful of hospitals and other health care providers across the state. About 2,500 doses are designated for the Portland-area mass vaccination clinic. Another 5,000 are headed to Department of Corrections pharmacies to begin vaccinating prison inmates after a federal judge ruled Tuesday that the state had to immediately offer the vaccine to prisoners.
State prisons have been hotbeds of Covid, with thousands of inmates and correctional employees sickened and 42 deaths of inmates who had tested positive for Covid.
Despite the lack of vaccines heading to the Salem area initially, Allen said Friday Oregon is now on track to finish vaccinating three-quarters of the state’s seniors, health care workers and educators by early April, about a month earlier than health officials had previously estimated.
That’s because the federal government is now allocating about 75,000 first doses of vaccine weekly, up from 52,000 previously. About 12,000 doses next week are headed to retail pharmacies, where limited appointments will be available, and that program is expected to expand in coming weeks.
That means those eligible next for vaccines could begin getting shots in early April. That list is still being finalized in Oregon, but includes frontline essential workers like grocery store employees, adults 65 and under with underlying health conditions that place them at higher risk for serious cases of Covid and people living in low-income and congregate senior housing.
Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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