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Racial and rural disparities are the focus of a new state push to get doses in hard-to-reach places.

COURTESY PHOTO - Oregon plans to deploy vans to vaccinate people against COVID-19 in hard-to-reach places.The Oregon Health Authority will deploy vaccination vans to hard-to-reach communities as a way to eliminate the disparities created between those with easy access to COVID-19 vaccines and those facing barriers.

This comes at a time when daily case counts of COVID-19 have more than doubled in just over a month, Dr. Dean Sidelinger, Oregon Health Authority state epidemiologist, said during a Friday, April 16, press conference.

As of Friday, Oregon had 173,626 COVID-19 cases, Sidelinger said. On March 6 the seven-day average number of cases was 249, but now the daily average is 595 cases.

Dr. Dean SidelingerCOVID-19 cases have increased more than 20% for each of the past three weeks, Sidelinger said. With such high case counts, more counties have shifted from lower risk levels to more restrictive levels. At the end of March, 28 counties were in the lower to moderate risk tiers. On Friday there were 22 counties listed as lower or moderate risk.

"We're all tired of fighting COVID-19," Sidelinger said. "Tired of wearing our masks. Tired of missing our loved ones. And tired of keeping our distance. But we must all continue to fight."

Sidelinger highlighted three social gatherings that caused recent outbreaks: a multi-night karaoke event that led to 36 cases, of which three were hospitalized and one person died; a small indoor concert that led to 15 cases; and a backyard gathering where all 10 people who attended tested positive for COVID-19.

oregon capital bureau

'Need to do better'

Patrick AllenSince December three in four seniors 65 and older have been vaccinated. Starting Monday anyone 16 and older can sign up for a vaccination.

Oregon Health Authority data highlights a vaccine disparity between white Oregonians and Latinos in particular. About 75% of Oregonians are white but white people account for 50% of COVID-19 cases and 71% of vaccinations. About 13% of Oregonians are Hispanic or Latino, but they make up 25% of COVID-19 cases account for 6% of vaccinations.

A driver in the vaccine disparity is that Latinos in Oregon tend to be younger and often don't work in the kind of jobs that had early access to vaccines.

The state has sent additional vaccines to federally qualified health centers, targeted migrant workers and worked with 170 community partners, and still access hasn't been balanced, said Patrick Allen, Oregon Health Authority director, at a press conference Friday. Because it's not enough, vans will be sent out to rural communities to vaccinate those interested, Allen said.

"As a state we can and need to do better," Allen said. "Vaccinations in Oregon have not been administered as equitably as they need to be. The numbers are stark and clear. For too many people race and income are predictors of whether you can access a COVID-19 vaccine or not."

Fewer doses available

Vaccine disparity is a national issue that cannot rely upon just a speedy rollout of vaccine delivery systems such as through the Oregon Convention Center, the Salem fairgrounds or the Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center, although they play an important role, Allen said. The vans will enable the vaccines to get to communities directly.

As of April 15, 1.5 million Oregonians received at least one dose of the vaccine. But because of concerns about rare blood clots, the state has halted the use of the one-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. Earlier in the week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged states to temporarily stop using the vaccine given to 6.8 million people after six women who received the vaccine became seriously ill and one died.

That halt means Oregon will have 70,000 fewer vaccines available each week, Allen said.

"We'll continue to see tight appointment availability in many parts of the state for the coming weeks at least until we know more about the availability of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine," Allen said. "However, we have enough doses to vaccinate anyone 16 and older before summer."

Oregon Capital Bureau reporter Gary A. Warner contributed to this report.

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