State health care officials acknowledged on Tuesday that Oregon’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout has been plagued with problems — something the state is scrambling to fix.
The COVID-19 vaccine rollout proved to be more complex than past flu vaccination and mass vaccination events said Oregon Health Authority Chief Medical Officer Dana Hargunani.
This rollout “imposes operational complexities that we are continuing to address,” Hargunani said.
The announcement came a day after Gov. Kate Brown asked the agency to ramp up capacity. By the end of two weeks, she wants 12,000 people a day to be vaccinated against the coronavirus in Oregon.
The OHA planned to vaccinate 100,000 health care workers by the end of 2020. Six days into the new year, it’s just halfway to that goal. Patrick Allen, the OHA director, said data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows Oregon being on par with other states in terms of per-capita vaccines administered (Oregon ranks 36th out of 50).
“But there’s more we can do to accelerate our progress,” Allen said.
As of Monday, 1.2% of the state’s population had been vaccinated.
OHA says part of the reason the vaccine rollout has been so slow is distribution. Information on vaccine shipments from the federal government has been inconsistent, and the number of vaccines Oregon expects to receive in the coming weeks has been cut several times.
OHA also described logistical challenges that have slowed the rollout.
“We’ve learned that distributing and administering large doses of COVID-19 vaccine is different from influenza vaccines,” Hargunani said.
”Scheduling, physical distancing, and the observation period immediately after a vaccine is administered all have an impact on the logistics of organizing mass vaccination events,” Hargunani said.
She also said the two-dose vaccination schedule and the ultra-cold storage required for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine have slowed rollout.
The vaccines are being shipped in boxes of almost 1,000 doses. But some hospitals have fewer than 1,000 healthcare workers and extra doses of vaccine, while many medical professionals that meet current COVID-19 vaccination requirements aren’t affiliated with large healthcare networks and haven’t gotten the shot yet.
”So far Oregon has been good at getting vaccinations into the arms of patients assigned to a specific location,” Allen said, “Now we need to up our game for people outside of those locations.”
Hargunani said the state is “forging new temporary relationships” to help vaccinate those doctors and nurses that aren’t part of hospital networks. It’s now “simplifying phase 1a” and removing all tiers of vaccinations. So now anyone in that phase can be vaccinated. Under this plan, health care workers will also be able to get the vaccine at retail pharmacies.
While many frontline health care workers are still waiting for their vaccine, employees at some hospitals say co-workers in administrative, work-from-home and office positions have already been vaccinated — even though they do not work with patients and don’t currently qualify to receive the vaccine.
In an email obtained by OPB, Oregon Health & Sciences University told all of its students and employees that anyone could receive the vaccine, even if they weren’t frontline workers.
“At first we thought these were isolated incidents, but now it’s clear this is a broader problem,” Allen said. It is the first time he has acknowledged that some doses of the vaccine have gone to people not currently being prioritized to receive them. Allen said his agency has called on those hospitals to stop the practice.
To help vaccinate home health care workers, OHSU will be partnering with the Service Employees International Union, which represents home care workers. Representatives from OHSU and SEIU said this program will be particularly tricky because there is no central employer to distribute the vaccinations, and workers speak a number of languages.
When asked how the state planned to vaccinate other types of outpatient health care workers, like dentists, Allen said plans were in progress but did not provide any further details.
Oregon has also fallen behind on plans to vaccinate residents and staff of different skilled nursing and long-term care facilities. The state plans to allot more of its future vaccine shipments to this program, which sends pharmacy staff into long-term care facilities.
Initially, those pharmacists were vaccinating people in tiers, starting with facilities that care for the most at-risk patients. But oftentimes different facilities could be housed in the same building. To speed the rollout, workers will now be able to vaccinate all levels of care in one place.