Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said Friday that she will stick with her controversial plan to vaccinate school staff ahead of elderly residents.
"My priorities have not changed," Brown said during a press conference.
The current state vaccination priority list calls for an estimated 100,000 K-12 teachers, school staff, child care workers and preschool employees to be eligible for vaccination Jan. 25.
Residents 80 and over will be eligible two weeks later, on Feb. 8. The minimum age will drop five years each week until those 65 and over are eligible on March 1.
Eligibility does not ensure availability. Brown has set a goal of the state's program administering 12,000 shots per day. With the current vaccines requiring two shots spaced several weeks apart, the goal means 6,000 residents would be fully vaccinated each day in the near future.
Oregon is one of only five states in the nation where the inoculation of those 65 and over has not begun. As of Friday, it is the only state to prioritize educators and staff ahead of older residents.
Oregon has an estimated 767,500 residents who are aged 65 or over out of a total population of about 4.2 million.
The state ranks 11th in percentage of elderly residents at just over 18 percent.
Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state's top infectious disease expert, said the Oregon Health Authority had not made estimates of the number of people who could die because the starting date for older Oregonians' eligibility was moved back two weeks.
OHA reported Thursday that COVID-19 related deaths had "surged" to 195 the previous week, the highest weekly toll to date. It broke the record set the prior week. According to OHA statistics, those aged 70 and over have accounted for 77% of the state's COVID-19 deaths.
Extrapolating those numbers, 390 Oregonians would die over a two-week period based on current rates and 300 would be over 70. OHA has not responded to a request for comment on the estimate.
Brown and health officials were able to point to some good news during the press conference. OHA reported 849 new COVID-19 cases and 11 new fatalities on Thursday. The report showed a continued gradual decline in cases and hospitalizations at a time when the state had previously forecast both would rise this month. A feared "Christmas spike" in cases due to residents traveling and gathering for the holidays has been shallower than expected.
Thursday marked the fifth day in a row with fewer than 850 cases. The current positive infection rate is 5.9% of tests, still above the 5% target set by the OHA to indicate infection rates are not growing rapidly.
The state also updated its vaccination numbers, saying 253,711 shots have been given since the vaccines began arriving in Oregon late last year.
When the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines became available, The Centers for Disease Control guidelines identified health care workers who are likely to come into contact with COVID-19 patients at the top of the priority list.
The CDC also called for inoculations for nursing home residents and staff, a group that accounted for just 5% of infections, but 36% of the nation's more than 400,000 deaths.
The facilities have accounted for 53% of deaths in Oregon, one of 13 states where more than half of COVID-19 fatalities are in residential nursing homes.
Most states have followed the CDC guidelines in deciding the ongoing priority groups. Older Americans, who are disproportionately more likely to suffer severe and fatal cases, were next on the CDC list. People with medical conditions that put them at risk of severe illness or death were also listed.
Brown and OHA decided to veer from the list, placing educators and school staff in front of the elderly.
With schools mostly closed since March, Brown has consistently said the long-term damage to students' quality of education, mental health and emotional well-being had been damaged by distance learning. She's set Feb. 15 as a goal for most schools to reopen if they meet minimum COVID-19 health recommendations.
While noting on Friday that school-age children are not in danger of widespread severe illness or death, Brown said the damage was deep enough that it warranted what she cast as a brief diversion of vaccine to jump-start education.
"It's really pretty simple," Brown said of her priorities. "I am using every single tool I have to get kids back into the classroom this school year."
Several studies have shown that students are losing ground because of remote learning. Schools also ensure access to meals for some and safeguard against child abuse because someone is seeing the student regularly outside of their home.
But Brown could not quantify the impact of reopening schools next month compared to May or later.
Courtney Campbell, a medical ethicist at Oregon State University, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that Brown deserves credit for making sure that COVID-19 resources reach underserved communities and those that have been disproportionately harmed by the pandemic. Black and Hispanic residents have a higher risk of infection due to having less access to quality health care, being in crowded housing conditions more frequently, and a higher incidence of having jobs that cannot be done remotely.
But Campbell said the decision to bump up school employees on the list of those most in need of vaccination was questionable at best.
"Health equity does not support prioritizing teachers and K-12 staff," she said.
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