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Politics & Government

After Capitol COVID-19 Scare, Oregon Lawmakers Will Get ‘Expedited’ Vaccines

Oregon senators wear masks while attending a floor session in December.
Oregon senators wear masks while attending a floor session in December.

Gov. Kate Brown has told the Oregon Health Authority to give legislators their own drive-thru clinic next week, when vaccines open up to thousands of frontline workers.

Fresh off of a COVID-19 scare in the Oregon Capitol, state lawmakers are about to have an easy way to get vaccinated.

Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen informed lawmakers in an email on Wednesday that the agency is setting up a private drive-up clinic for members of the House and Senate on April 7. That means lawmakers who want a vaccine will be able to skip a more competitive, sometimes confusing process that many other Oregonians face.

“To ensure you can safely continue the important and time-sensitive work of legislating during a critical period for Oregon, the Governor directed OHA to set up a small drive-thru clinic to expedite your vaccinations,” Allen wrote. The clinic will take place next Wednesday in Salem, and will feature the one-shot vaccine offered by Johnson & Johnson, the email said.

State legislators who do not currently qualify for vaccination for other reasons will become eligible on April 5, along with people classified as frontline workers by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Also on that list: grocery store workers, food service workers, construction workers, members of the news media, and other professions.

For many of the newly eligible, the process will mean vying for an appointment via mass vaccination efforts or through pharmacies. In the Portland region, officials are using a lottery system to dole out appointments to qualifying Oregonians.

But Brown and other officials say legislators currently meeting in Salem for the 2021 legislative session should have a more streamlined path to immunity.

“This drive-thru clinic will help ensure that legislators who are required to be in Salem to vote can do so with minimal disruption,” said Danny Moran, a spokesman for House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said Wednesday he’s been urging Brown to help lawmakers get quick vaccinations.

“We are in a legislative session,” said Courtney, who has already been vaccinated because he meets existing eligibility requirements. “We are passing laws and we’re passing budgets, some of them with emergency clauses. You shut down the legislative branch because of this terrible virus, that is very bad.”

A spokesman for Brown said that the special treatment is warranted, since lawmakers must travel frequently from their homes to Salem.

“With legislators traveling to Salem for the legislative session, not all may be able to easily schedule appointments in their home communities,” said Charles Boyle, the governor’s deputy communications director. “The clinic being arranged by the Oregon Health Authority is another option to ensure legislators can be vaccinated quickly, and to minimize disruptions to the Legislature’s ability to respond to emergencies, pass bills and a budget, and ensure the continued functioning of state government for all Oregonians.”

Since March 22, Kotek’s office has announced two cases of COVID-19 in the House. The presence of the virus spurred Kotek to cancel floor sessions for a week. But no more cases have emerged and the chamber has resumed meeting twice daily, a schedule designed to help lawmakers move bills ahead of legislative deadlines while Republicans require bills to be read in full before a vote.

Lawmakers in both parties have expressed concerns with those meetings, with Democrats calling on Republicans to drop delay tactics, and Republicans calling on Kotek to stop scheduling lengthy floor sessions at all. So far, neither party has budged.

The Senate has been meeting twice a week, though under much more collegial circumstances.

One key partisan flashpoint in both chambers continues to be the ongoing closure of the Capitol to the general public. Some Senate Republicans have continuously voted against bills in protest of the ongoing closures. Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod, R-Lyons, has called for the building to be opened no later than April 21. But even if all lawmakers take Brown up on her offer for a shot, it’s not clear the building will open any sooner.

That’s because, under the current Capitol safety plan, lawmakers would not consider reopening the building until Marion County is classified as “lower risk” for the spread of COVID-19. The county is currently listed as “high risk,” two steps above where it needs to be.

Kotek’s office has said that Marion County’s risk level will not be the only consideration in reopening the Capitol.

“State health officials have also recommended that other county risk levels across the state be considered for expanding access as well, given members of the public would be coming from all over Oregon,” Moran wrote.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting