Gov. Kate Brown says she wants teachers and the staffs of schools, child-care and early-learning centers to be considered for inclusion in the second phase of vaccinations against the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Brown also says that state and federal actions — the latter are still unresolved — should give the Oregon Health Authority and other agencies enough money to carry out vaccination campaigns even as Oregon continues to get fewer doses than expected of the two vaccines authorized for emergency use.
She spoke at a briefing for reporters on Tuesday, Dec. 22, the day after the Oregon Legislature drew $800 million from the projected ending balance of the two-year state budget to spend on pandemic and Labor Day wildfire expenses. Congress also passed a $900 billion plan for coronavirus expenses nationwide, though a threat by President Donald Trump over a different issue has clouded it.
Oregon, in accordance with federal guidelines and its own advisory panel, put health-care providers and nursing-home residents and staffs at the top of the list for vaccinations.
Brown said teachers and others involved with children should be considered for priority in the next phase, which is expected to cover "essential workers" in some sectors and people age 75 and up. An advisory panel within the health agency will shape those priorities.
"Our kids need to know they are No. 1, and that we are doing everything we can to get them back into our classrooms," Brown said.
"Educators and school staff are without a doubt essential to Oregon, and getting our kids back into the classroom is crucial to all of our success. As we continue to work toward stemming the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, getting our teachers and school staff vaccinated will help ensure we can make learning environments as safe as possible."
They may have to wait awhile.
About 10,000 people have been vaccinated as of Dec. 22. Oregon expects shipments of 109,200 doses from Pfizer/BioNTech and 103,800 doses from Moderna by Dec. 31, but the Oregon Health Authority says the numbers include second doses for the first batch of people vaccinated. Both vaccines require two doses for maximum protection. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines require super-cold storage; the Moderna vaccines do not.
OHA Director Patrick Allen said the federal government, not the state, controls the number of doses and their delivery. He also said state officials are uncertain whether the total doses released are from stockpiles manufactured before the Food and Drug Administration authorized their emergency use, or whether they are from the drugmakers ramping up new production.
The Democratic chief executive is under pressure from all sides on the issue of resuming in-person instruction in schools, which she said are also important as social connections between children and communities.
Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod of Lyons called for such prioritization the day before Brown did. But the president of the Oregon Education Association — the state's largest teachers union, and one usually allied with Democrats — said Wednesday that Brown's subsequent announcement of looser school reopening guidelines will result in "an increasingly disparate patchwork of return plans."
Brown said she expects Joe Biden to propose more federal money to help states reopen schools soon after he becomes president on Jan. 20.
"He also understands that our schools need additional resources if we are going to be successful as we work hard to get our kids back into the classroom," Brown said. "He understands that our teachers need support personnel to meet the social and emotional needs of our students."
Money in the till
Brown did say at her news conference that Oregon has enough money to proceed with vaccination campaigns and related public health measures, although officials were sorting out the details.
The Legislature set aside $400 million for pandemic-related expenses, which the 20-member Emergency Board is expected to take up the week of Jan. 4-8, just before the Jan. 11 start of the 2021 regular session. Brown said she would lay out her spending priorities. (The state emergency fund was down to about $17 million.)
The federal share is not yet known. Trump has held up the congressional plan, which emerged after months of political disputes, over the amount of economic stimulus checks to households.
"In terms of the details, we know there are resources for pandemic response and vaccination support efforts that will be welcome," Brown said.
"The package for the state Legislature was developed in such a way that we wanted to ensure that the Oregon Health Authority and other agencies on the front lines of the pandemic response had the resources and tools they needed. I am hoping, frankly, that the federal resources will backfill (the state) and that we can turn those resources to helping vulnerable Oregonians and our businesses that are struggling. So we will be working out the details over the next couple of weeks."
The $900 billion congressional plan is far short of what the Democratic majority in the House wanted — the House passed plans with $3.4 trillion and $2.2 trillion earlier — but far more than the $500 billion proposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Even some Senate Republicans thought that was too much.
Democrats dropped their demand for direct aid to state and local governments and tribes — the amount had come down to $160 billion, close to what they got in the CARES Act earlier this year — and Republicans dropped their demand for a limited-liability shield for businesses against COVID-19 lawsuits.
But Biden said the recently passed plan was only a starting point for a supplemental amount he plans to seek from Congress.
Brown said the state's next two-year budget is critically short, given that growth in income-tax collections lags behind projected expenses for the cycle starting July 1. The state still has expenses stemming from the pandemic, the economic after-effects and the Labor Day wildfires.
"I think it is critically important — given that the states have been on the front lines of this pandemic, given that we have to balance our budgets and our revenues are down, and given that we are the safety net for Oregon families across the state — that the feds step up and provide additional assistance to the states.
"I know that President-elect Biden is absolutely committed to doing everything in his power to make that happen."
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