Oregon is well behind a target public health officials set earlier this month to get 100,000 people their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine before the years’ end.
Late Wednesday, just over 31,000 people had received their first dose, according to the state’s vaccination data portal, though there can be up to a 72-hour lag in reporting new vaccinations.
The Oregon Health Authority attributes the delays to start-up issues, and said vaccine provider sites across the state are inoculating more people per hour. The agency said the supply of vaccines is not the issue.
“We do have enough vaccine this month to vaccinate 100,000 people, although we don’t anticipate actually vaccinating that number of people in the next couple days; that probably will take a couple more weeks,” said Timothy Heider, a spokesman for the Oregon Health Authority.
Oregon’s sluggish pace getting health-care workers vaccinated is part of a nationwide problem: More than 14 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been shipped, but only 2.1 million people have gotten the vaccine so far, according to the New York Times.
Health and hospital officials in Oregon said the limited availability of ultra-cold freezer units in rural areas, combined with the Christmas holiday and confusion over when shipments would arrive, all contributed to delays in getting health workers and others vaccinated.
In some rural parts of the state, including Umatilla County, hospital staff vaccinations only started this week. The state rates Umatilla County as at “Extreme Risk” for spread of COVID-19, with one of the highest case rates in Oregon.
Related: Oregon adjusts county's COVID-19 risk assessments
The delay was due, in part, to a decision the state made not to send the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the first one authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Dec. 11, to a handful of rural counties, including Umatilla County.
The Oregon Health Authority opted not to send any of the Pfizer vaccine to counties with hospitals that lacked ultra-cold storage and where the total health care workforce includes fewer than 2,500 people.
The Pfizer vaccine needs to be kept at minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit). Umatilla County’s two hospitals, CHI St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton and Good Shepherd Hospital in Hermiston, don’t have ultra-cold freezers.
Those counties were instead prioritized for shipments of the Moderna vaccine, which the federal government authorized for use a week after it approved Pfizer’s.
But according to Pfizer, ultra-cold freezers aren’t required for storing its vaccine short-term; the vaccine can be kept in the coolers they ship in for up to 30 days, as long as they are regularly refilled with dry ice.
“As much as we wanted to get all this out there, a week delay is not likely to cause a huge issue,” said Joseph Fiumara, the Umatilla County public health director. “I can’t fault that decision being made that way.”
Fiumara said he doesn’t like having the county reliant on a single company’s vaccine, given the possibility for future shortages or production issues. So he’s acquiring an ultra-cold freezer for the health department, in hopes of being able to store the Pfizer vaccine if necessary.
“There’s so many unknowns, we have to be able to be flexible, so that at a moment’s notice we can shift directions if we have to,” he said.
Confusion over when exactly the first doses of the Moderna vaccine would arrive in Umatilla County led the hospitals there to schedule their first vaccinations for the Monday after Christmas - even though the vaccine was in fact delivered a few days before the holiday.
Klamath County, like Umatilla, is only receiving the Moderna vaccine. The county is in the grips of a surge of COVID-19 cases: about a third of the ICU patients in the
Sky Lakes Medical Center in Klamath Falls have COVID-19, and the hospital had to open a second isolation unit for its COVID-19 patients in November.
Related: Klamath Falls doctors grapple with rural coronavirus surge
The hospital was expecting to get its first shipment of the Moderna vaccine late last week. When the first 800 doses arrived earlier than expected, on Monday, the staff made a spur of the moment decision to turn a walk-through planning exercise into a vaccination clinic instead.
“I was like, it’s early Christmas,” said Tom Hottman, Sky Lakes Medical Center spokesman.
Hottman said it took close to two hours to administer the first dose. The hospital was still figuring out how to space out the chairs and where to give people the paperwork they needed to fill out.
“After that, it went really fast. I’m remembering 150 doses in 3.5 hours,” he said.
Hottman said the hospital has enough doses to vaccinate all of its staff, and is expecting more to arrive soon to cover other health care providers in the community.
Sixteen people in Klamath County have died from the coronavirus, including a 52-year-old community health representative for the Klamath Tribes.
To date, Oregon’s share of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been shipped directly to hospitals, tribes, and to a handful of pharmacies that are distributing them to nursing homes.
The Oregon Health Authority says some doses this week will go to a new group of distributors: emergency medical services and county public health departments, who can make the vaccine available more broadly to health-care workers and first responders.