Virus variants, vaccine deliveries challenge Oregon's COVID fight
The appearance in Oregon of a more contagious and virulent variant of the COVID-19 virus is concerning for health officials racing to vaccinate up to three million more Oregonians, after the state hit the 1 million vaccine mark on Wednesday, March 24.
"Today marks an important milestone in our state — this would not have been possible without the dedication of our vaccinators around Oregon," said OHA Director Pat Allen.
Allen's report to lawmakers included good news: 1 million shots of vaccine since December, and the long, steep fall in infections and deaths since the winter. OHA's risk level report for counties has only two rated as extreme risk: Coos and Curry.
Twenty of 36 counties in the state have received permission to start giving vaccines to the next group of eligible Oregonians, which includes people age 45 and above with underlying medical conditions, pregnant women older than 16 and several other groups.
OHA has expanded the pool of people who can give vaccines to 30 groups, from doctors and nurses to midwives and optometry students.
But Oregon's program is also experiencing headaches, hiccups and hints of some troubling signs. Allen told a legislative committee that Oregon had been told that supplies of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine are delayed, with the date of additional shipment unknown. Oregon received more than 34,000 doses earlier this month and counted on the one-shot inoculations to rapidly increase the number of people in the state who are considered vaccinated.
Oregon continues to receive about 200,000 doses per week of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, which require two shots spaced about a month apart. The dependence on the two-shot regime means the state has actually fully vaccinated more than 500,000 people.
That is the number of residents who will be eligible on March 29. Another more than half million people — including frontline and essential workers — are eligible April 19. The remainder of the population can seek shots as of May 1.
Allen said dates when newly eligible groups start seeking vaccinations create "pinch points" where demand outstrips supply. "We heavily depend on there being Johnson & Johnson in the state," Allen said.
Erroneous vaccination notifications
The presence of the "L.A. Variant," known to scientists as B.1.429, has been increasingly detected in wastewater samples statewide in recent months. It has been found in about 20% of wastewater samples taken around the state, but has not shown up in positive tests in people as yet.
Allen said the variant is estimated to be 20% more transmissible than the original COVID-19 virus.
The variant can also have a "moderate impact" on vaccines and "significant impact" on some treatments for people who become infected with COVID-19, Allen said. Existing vaccines are projected to be effective at preventing severe illness or death from the variants.
Moderna and other companies are already working to fight the variants through small changes in the composition of vaccines or increasing the amount given as a booster.
Allen said public health officials in California reported declining infection rates despite the presence of the variant. The officials say it's likely due to social distancing, mask wearing, hygiene and other preventative measures.
"The same tools we use without variants are the same ones that work with variants," Allen said.
Allen confirmed that the Oregon Health Authority vaccination notification center that handles the three-county area around Portland had erroneously sent messages to 11,000 ineligible people that it was their turn to come to the mass vaccination facility at the Oregon Convention Center.
The people contacted are in the group that isn't supposed to be able to sign up for vaccinations until April 19. Allen said the invitations will be honored, and OHA will have to revise its plans, but that no additional vaccine would be sent to the center because of the mishap.
Number of cases plateaued
Allen said OHA was on track to meet a goal of having 75% of all those age 65 and older vaccinated by April 1. He said the lack of an influx of Johnson & Johnson vaccine could make that goal more difficult. He also pointed to southwestern Oregon and areas of the state where vaccination of seniors is lagging. OHA wants to make sure the issue is not access to vaccine. But Allen said reports from the field also showed the area had a higher percentage of seniors who did not want to be vaccinated.
"There's probably a ceiling on seniors" seeking inoculation in some counties, Allen said.
Allen said that Oregon ranked in the bottom five of states for both new COVID-19 infections and deaths. Through Wednesday's report, there have been 162,384 cases and 2,368 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
Allen said OHA was keeping its eye on the average number of cases per week. He had told the committee the prior week that there is some concern that the long decline since January has plateaued and may even go up.
"If it does go up, it will be slight," Allen said.
OHA is also monitoring the percentage of tests that come back positive. Oregon has been below the 5% mark that means the number of infections won't grow.
But after a steady decline since February, the rate has slightly risen and fallen in recent weeks. It's at 3.9%.
"Positivity is wiggling back and forth," Allen said. "But within a comfortable range."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.