At the start of April, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown called our current moment in the COVID-19 pandemic a “race” between the coronavirus and vaccines.
This week, it appears vaccines are losing that race.
The state is reporting infections at levels not seen since January. Oregon has confirmed an average of almost 600 cases a day this past week, with some daily case counts exceeding 700 and 800 — and those are just the infections confirmed by positive tests.
That’s with nearly a quarter of Oregon adults fully vaccinated and more than a third having received at least one shot.
All Oregon adults 16 years and older will become eligible for vaccines starting Monday, and thousands more people each day are getting the jab. At the same time, however, state data shows that vaccine eligibility has not translated to vaccine equity.
“The numbers are stark and clear,” said Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority. “For too many people, race and income are predictors of whether you can access a COVID-19 vaccine — or not.”
For example, people who identify as Hispanic or Latino make up about 13% of Oregon’s population but 25% of its confirmed coronavirus cases and just 6% of total vaccinations.
Latino organizers in Oregon have identified the many barriers to vaccination that still exist despite open eligibility. Accessing a shot requires navigating an at best complex and at worst unsafe bureaucracy.
The state has funneled vaccines to federally qualified health centers and spent millions of dollars on outreach to try to shrink the vaccine gap. Oregon is also working with individual employers around the state to vaccinate employees on-site and with other community groups, but Brown acknowledged the state needs to do more.
“We certainly are welcoming concrete suggestions and advice,” the governor said.
New zip code data also shows people in some of the wealthiest Oregon neighborhoods are getting vaccinated at nearly twice the rate of people in the poorest ones.
And one of the state’s tools for shrinking vaccine gaps is still out of commission.
Oregon joined other states in pausing use of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week, while federal health authorities investigate six cases of extraordinarily rare blood clots, one of which was linked to a death, among the nearly 7 million people who received that vaccine. Risks associated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine remain extremely low.
Oregon has administered relatively few Johnson & Johnson vaccines so far, but had planned on using them to inoculate harder-to-reach populations.
Public health officials are urging people to limit indoor gatherings, maintain 6 feet of social distance, wear a mask that covers their nose and mouth, and wash their hands to prevent spread of the deadly virus.
The upswing in coronavirus cases triggered increased public restrictions in several Oregon counties — including Multnomah, Clackamas and Deschutes — on April 6. The state will release new county risk levels Tuesday, April 20, and state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said some counties could see additional restrictions.
Sidelinger said many recent coronavirus outbreaks are tied to social gatherings of largely unmasked people. He referenced a multi-night karaoke event that sickened 36 people, hospitalized three and killed one. An indoor concert at a small music venue sickened 15 people and another backyard gathering led to coronavirus infections in all 10 attendees.
“It’s another reminder that even small lapses can have consequences,” Sidelinger said.
Oregon has confirmed more than 172,000 cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic and 2,455 virus-related deaths.