Oregon is faring better than other states during the COVID-19 pandemic — but not by every measure.
During a press conference Feb. 19, state health officials discussed plans to address racial and ethnic disparities in who’s getting the COVID-19 vaccine, as well as other news about the status of the pandemic across the state.
“At a minimum, we need to make sure our vaccinations proportionately reflect the faces of our communities,” said Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen. “But we want to do more. Our COVID-19 efforts should be a model for how we’re eliminating health disparities in Oregon.”
Allen pointed to a few statistics which show the inequities in Oregon’s vaccine distribution. He said the state’s Latino population has the most pronounced disparities: While Latinos make up 13% of the population and 26% of the state’s COVID-19 cases, Allen said it only accounts for about 5% of the vaccines administered to date.
On the other hand, white people make up 75% of the population and about half of the state’s virus cases, but 74% of the vaccines distributed, Allen said.
Allen went on to say that the effects of the pandemic have hit communities of color the hardest, particularly because those communities tend to see higher rates of underlying conditions due to uneven access to care and a history of unfair treatment.
“I want to be perfectly clear, health inequities are the product of systemic racism, toxic stress, the targeted marketing of harmful products like tobacco and sugary beverages, and other factors. This is not about personal choice,” Allen said. “This is about the weight of larger social inequities that cut short lives and opportunity more often for people in communities of color.”
In response, Allen said the state would promote a more equitable distribution of COVID-19 doses across the state by prioritizing pharmacies and federally qualified health centers which serve communities disproportionately impacted by the virus.
OHA officials also expect those rates to become more equitable as vaccine eligibility expands: Most of the groups already eligible for vaccines skew whiter than the rest of the population yet to be eligible, Allen said.
“Just by simple virtue of who’s eligible, we’ll begin to be able to start addressing that,” Allen said.
Doses up, cases down
State officials on Friday shared a number of positive data points which suggest Oregon is trending in a better direction in the pandemic than many other states across the country.
Governor Kate Brown pointed to the number of schools which have reopened in Oregon as a positive. Over 130,000 students are back in classrooms, more than double the number than eight weeks earlier when Brown directed officials to prioritize school reopenings, the governor said.
“Our kids will benefit greatly from these efforts,” Brown said. “It’s my expectation that more schools will bring students back for in-person learning in the coming weeks.”
Those classroom returns have largely been driven by significant decreases in the state’s rate of new virus cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the past several weeks.
According to State Epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the seven-day rolling average of daily cases is down by two-thirds since the beginning of the year, and virus hospitalizations have dropped by more than half in the same time.
The state’s test positivity rate is down to its lowest point since the state changed how it calculates the figure in mid-November, too, Sidelinger said.
“The downward data trends in cases, hospitalizations and percent positivity reflect the shared sacrifice of Oregonians, and the collaborative efforts of Oregonians to protect their families and their communities by wearing masks, limiting indoor gatherings and keeping physical distance,” Sidelinger said.
One number is steadily increasing, through: The state’s expected allocation of COVID-19 vaccine doses. Despite delays in doses of the Moderna vaccine due to winter storms across the country, OHA officials said the state remains on track with its vaccination timetables.
That means people over 70 will be eligible for the vaccine starting Feb. 22, and those over 65 will be eligible March 1, according to Allen.
“I want to ask people who are newly eligible the same thing I’ve asked everyone who’s come before them: Please be patient,” Allen said. “Vaccines remain limited. We’re getting more doses, but we still don’t have enough to vaccinate everyone on demand.”
Allen said the state expects to receive about 107,000 total doses per week starting next week, up from around 83,000 the week before (not accounting for weather-delayed shipments).
As always, the state officials said there’s still risk of the virus spreading faster across the state with new variants or reduced precautionary measures.
Individuals should continue wearing masks, social distancing and staying home when sick, and anyone who escaped power outages or winter storms by sheltering in someone else’s home should be vigilant for virus symptoms and get tested if they appear, Brown said.