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Health and Medicine

Putting Teachers 1st Could Lead To Vaccine Shortages For Health Workers

Home health care workers began receiving COVID-19 vaccinations on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021 in Portland, Ore., at a drive-thru vaccination clinic. But as the state continues to expand vaccine eligibility, health officials from three Portland-area counties have warned that health workers and adults with disabilities may have to wait longer to get their own doses.
Home health care workers began receiving COVID-19 vaccinations on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021 in Portland, Ore., at a drive-thru vaccination clinic. But as the state continues to expand vaccine eligibility, health officials from three Portland-area counties have warned that health workers and adults with disabilities may have to wait longer to get their own doses.

Three Portland-area public health departments are sounding the alarm that tens of thousands of health workers and adults with disabilities risk falling behind as Gov. Kate Brown moves forward Tuesday with a statewide COVID-19 vaccination campaign for teachers.

Multnomah County, Clackamas County and Washington County expect to receive 15,000 first doses of the vaccine this week. Of those, 12,000 are earmarked for educators, leaving just 3,000 for those remaining in .

Among the people in 1A who may still be waiting for the vaccine are adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, home health workers, dental workers, medical translators and non-emergency medical transport providers.

“Oregon Health Authority has said that most people in the 1A priority group are vaccinated. That may be true in other parts of the state, but it’s not true in the metro area,” said Washington County health officer Dr. Christina Baumann.

The counties say that given their limited supply of the vaccine, they have shut down a survey they were using to link healthcare providers, sole practitioners and others in Phase 1A to appointment slots with the health systems.

Those in 1A who have not yet gotten vaccinated should be prepared to wait weeks — or potentially months — for their turn.

“We understand people are frustrated, and we share their frustration. There is not enough vaccine to vaccinate everyone who is eligible or for everyone who has filled out our survey,” said Multnomah County public health director Jessica Guernsey.

In the two weeks the survey was online, employers and organizations requested vaccines for roughly 60,000 people, with more signing up daily. The counties sent invitations to more than 11,000 deemed most in need.

Some, they said, have found alternative ways to get vaccinated after filling out the county surveys.

“We know the need is great and has not been met. How big the denominator is, or how many people have already received vaccine, is really hard to say,” Baumann said.

The announcement from the counties is broadly consistent with a presentation Oregon Health Authority director Patrick Allen gave to the Oregon Senate Health Committee Monday.

Allen said the state remains focused on getting the vaccine to hard-to-reach and vulnerable populations in the 1A group, particularly adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

At the same time, the state needs to expand eligibility for the vaccine to ensure that all doses are getting used.

“There’s a tension here between go thorough and go fast,” he said.

Allen said the state consulted with local public health agencies before making its allocation decisions this week. Of about 50,000 first doses of the vaccine the state is receiving, 18,000 have been earmarked for the 1A groups.

“We’ll really basically have three different population groups open at the same time. That’s going to be a little bit hairy, and there’s not a ton of a way around that,” Allen said.

Last week, the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems warned that hospitals would be unable to schedule vaccinations for everyone soon to be eligible.

“This idea that eligibility means that its your turn to smoothly log in and get your vaccine appointment — that is simply not the case in the Portland metro area at this moment, and it may be weeks, if not longer, until that is the case,” regional health officer Dr. Jennifer Vines said.

The competition for any available vaccines is likely to become more acute in February, when Oregon moves to open up vaccinations to older people, starting with those 80 and over on Feb. 8. People 65 and over account for 17.5% of the total U.S. population, and will be eligible for the vaccine later in February, under the state’s current plan.

Portland metro area health officials, meanwhile, said they are advocating for a greater allocation of vaccines to the urban center.

“One way to solve this situation is to allocate more vaccines to the Portland metro area, to match the level of population and complexity,” Guernsey said.

Educators and people in Phase 1A are being directed to sign up for their vaccine using a new scheduling tool on an Oregon Health Authority website at .

Phase 1A people who already have an appointment to be vaccinated don’t need to do anything but show up for their scheduled time, according to county public health officials. Those who filled out the survey but have not heard back should go to the to schedule an appointment.

County public health systems are sending people to the scheduling site, while warning that it may not work well: it can only handle 1,000 people at a time, so people may have to try back several times.

Once appointments are full for the week, people eligible for the vaccines will have to try again the next week.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting.