Oregon is taking a step back in its effort to vaccinate older residents of the state, after learning that its push to rapidly accelerate COVID-19 vaccinations has been derailed by what Gov. Kate Brown called mass deception on the part of the Trump administration.
Instead of allowing teachers and all Oregonians older than 65 to start receiving vaccinations later this month as previously announced the state on Friday adjusted its plans for the next phase of vaccine doses to prioritize teachers and other education workers starting on the week of Jan. 25, and people 80 and older starting on Feb. 8.
The effort that has already been under way with health care, long-term care and vulnerable populations will not change, Brown said.
“Across the state, we continue to vaccinate Oregon’s front-line health-care workers, individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their caregivers, long-term care residents and staff and more,” she said in a press conference Friday afternoon. She used the event to emphasize the state’s effort to pivot after learning it will receive fewer doses than expected.
The governor had announced that news earlier Friday morning: “States will not be receiving increased shipments of vaccines from the national stockpile next week, because there is no federal reserve of doses,” Brown said on Twitter.
Last night, I received disturbing news, confirmed to me directly by General Perna of Operation Warp Speed: States will not be receiving increased shipments of vaccines from the national stockpile next week, because there is no federal reserve of doses.— Governor Kate Brown (@OregonGovBrown) January 15, 2021
“I am demanding answers from the Trump Administration. I am shocked and appalled that they have set an expectation on which they could not deliver, with such grave consequences,” she continued. “This is a deception on a national scale. Oregon’s seniors, teachers, all of us, were depending on the promise of Oregon’s share of the federal reserve of vaccines being released to us.”
The governor’s Friday morning tweets were among the first news of a major setback for vaccination efforts across the country, and came less than a day after the Oregon Health Authority said it had achieved its goal of administering 12,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses per day and was preparing to expand that effort still further.
Later in the day, Brown repeated her frustration with the Trump administration, and also expressed hope for the coming Biden-Harris administration, which begins Wednesday. “Soon we will have a strong, competent and trustworthy partner we can work with at the federal level,” she said.
Pharmaceutical companies are continuing to produce and distribute new doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines daily, so while the lack of a federal stockpile may slow inoculation in Oregon, it should not bring the national vaccination effort to a complete halt.
Oregon learns of a federal shortage
Now that effort is in question. The Oregon Health Authority first uncovered the problem when attempting to order new shipments of vaccine, its director, Allen, told OPB on Friday.
“I learned that our staff who do the allocations of our vaccine couldn’t find any new vaccine available to order in the system,” Allen said during an appearance on “Think Out Loud.” Over the course of the day, health authority employees heard back from contacts in the federal government.
“We were told that ‘there had been a misunderstanding’ was the phrase,” Allen said.
There was no vaccine in reserve, those contacts said, and Oregon’s vaccine shipments would not increase.
“I thought I was losing my mind,” Allen said, “I went back and actually reviewed the actual C-SPAN video of Secretary Azar, and the words he used were ‘releasing the entire supply.’ He talked about physical inventory. It was incredibly clear.”
It was so clear that most states, not just Oregon, responded to the announcement by expanding their vaccination programs.
After learning of the situation Thursday, Allen wrote a letter to Alex Azar, U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, on Thursday.
“This is extremely disturbing, and puts our plans to expand eligibility at grave risk,” Allen wrote in the letter, which was released Friday morning.
“Those plans were made on the basis of reliance on your statement about “releasing the entire supply” you have in reserve,” Allen wrote. “If this information is accurate, we will be unable to begin vaccinating our vulnerable seniors on January 23rd as planned.”
Brown echoed that dismay at her Friday afternoon press conference: “I am shocked and appalled that the federal government would set an expectation with the American people on which they knew they could not deliver — with such grave consequences,” she said.
Allen emphasized Friday during a press conference that there is enough vaccine for Oregonians waiting to receive a second dose.
According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Oregon Health Authority data from Thursday, Oregon had over 200,000 vaccinations on hand yet to be administered, with 120,090 people waiting to get second doses. It is unclear how those 200,000 doses have been distributed among the hospitals, health care systems, pharmacies and other locations where they’ve been shipped.
And it’s also unclear how Oregon’s ongoing efforts to ramp-up inoculation programs will be affected by the absence of a federal reserve of doses.
Earlier this week, Brown announced that Oregon will expand COVID-19 vaccination efforts to include people age 65 and older, as well as teachers. And in the Portland area, four major health systems have pledged to pool staff and vaccine doses to begin a major inoculation effort at the city’s Oregon Convention Center, starting later this month.
Allen told OPB the Oregon Health Authority has been expecting a one-time shipment of roughly 200,000 vaccine doses — about four weeks worth of the Moderna shot, and three weeks’ worth of Pfizer’s.
“The population over 65 is larger than everybody else, including education employees, that we’ve made eligible so far,” Allen said, “We thought it was enough supply to begin that work. But without that much vaccine, it’s going to be impossible.”
“At the current rate we’re receiving vaccine, we’re expecting it would take about 12 weeks to get through everyone 65 and over,” he said, referring to the lower rate at which vaccines are likely to be distributed without a federal stockpile.
Allen said teachers and seniors will still get priority when Oregon begins vaccinating in what’s been dubbed “Phase 1b.”
“But we’ll have to roll back to something like what our previous plan was, based on the ongoing shipment of more or less 100,000 first and second doses of both vaccines.”
Trent Green, the chief operating officer and a senior vice president at Legacy Health, has been working to coordinate mass vaccination sites in the state. He said that teachers will be fairly easy to vaccinate, because they’re part of an organized system.
OHA expects it will take just two weeks to vaccinate all 100,000 school workers in Oregon.
Some health care workers, people living in group homes and in hard-to-reach communities still need to be vaccinated, Allen said. He expects to have more information on how this will impact Oregon’s vaccine rollout by the governor’s Friday afternoon press conference.
Diane Hood is the president of Mary’s Wood Senior Community in Lake Oswego. She said residents were initially excited to receive the vaccine. They had hoped to be able to travel again and see family, but instead they’ll have to continue waiting at home.
“I think that’s been really hard for people and I think there are a lot of mental health issues that we’re going to suffer from,” Hood said.
According to a report Friday morning in The Washington Post, the Trump administration ceased stockpiling the vaccine at the end of last year and began shipping doses directly from the assembly line. Officials with the administration have said they are confident that pharmaceutical manufacturers can meet demand now that they have achieved a consistent pace of production, The Washington Post reported.
It’s hard to tell which is worse – the Trump administration’s lies or its incompetence. Either way, its latest failure to provide vaccines is completely unacceptable for Americans counting on them. I'll be pressing for answers. New leadership can't come soon enough. https://t.co/vykIqRdLXE— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) January 15, 2021
Oregon U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, responded on Twitter Friday to news that U.S. vaccine reserves have been exhausted: “...its latest failure to provide vaccines is completely unacceptable for Americans counting on them.”
President-elect Joe Biden has said he planned to release stockpiled vaccines in order to accelerate inoculation efforts after his inauguration.
This story is developing. Watch for updates.