ENTERPRISE — The most susceptible members of the general public when it comes to fending off COVID-19 will have access to the COVID-19 vaccine next week.

A directive from the Oregon Health Authority and the governor's office announced late Tuesday, Jan. 12, has opened the door for anyone 65 years old and older, as well as educators, to be eligible to get the vaccine.

According to a press release from the OHA, vaccinations to "seniors — as well as child care providers and early learning and K-12 educators and staff" are scheduled to start Jan. 23.

In Wallowa County, however, that segment of the population will be able to start getting shots as early as Tuesday, Jan. 19. Wallowa Memorial Hospital Communications Director Brooke Pace said that since the first phase of inoculation is wrapping up and there still is plenty of the vaccine on-hand, the next wave of vaccinations can begin.

"We feel good that we have reached all of the Phase 1A people who are interested in receiving a vaccine," Pace said. "We currently have enough vaccine on-hand to be able to start on this next group. Rather than sitting on (the) vaccine and waiting 10 days from now, we have decided to move forward."

A second day that has been made available for seniors and educators to get vaccinated is Friday, Jan. 22.

As of Tuesday, there had been 220 first-dose shots of the Moderna vaccine administered in the Wallowa County to the initial-phase recipients. More than 400 doses are currently on-hand to begin the next phase of inoculations, Pace said Friday. Pace said the hospital is hopeful it will receive another 100 doses in the coming days, and is confident that, with the governor and OHA opening the door to more people to get vaccinated, that more doses are soon to follow.

"We don't think that the state would open it up to all of these people if they weren't intending on sending out more vaccine for us to be able to do this," she said.

One of the county residents who is scheduled to get a vaccine next week is Michael Fleming. The 69-year-old Joseph resident said he was "elated" upon hearing the news that his age demographic would be able to start getting vaccinated, especially given that only a day or two earlier, the prospect was not nearly as likely.

"I had contacted my primary physician through...MyChart and just inquired a day or so ago about the eligibility," he told the Chieftain Wednesday afternoon. "They answered right away and said that they didn't know and that the hospital would be making an announcement (when it did know). The tone was 'We don't know.' It gave the impression it wouldn't be any time soon. (Wednesday) morning I got a second message that said they are available now."

Fleming said that he's in pretty good health, but wanted to get the vaccine largely due to concern of potential long-term health issues of COVID-19. He also said an extended family member died from the virus.

"That's just reinforced all the things I already believed about being careful," he said, referring to the calls to wear masks and social distance.

Pace called it a "huge step" that the vaccine can now be administered to those 65 and older, who have been by far the segment of the population hit hardest by COVID-19. According to data from the OHA, through Tuesday individuals age 60 and above have accounted for 1,515 of the reported 1,667 COVID-19 deaths in Oregon — nearly 91% of all casualties — despite making up just more than 17% of all cases — 22,112 of the 127,780.

"I actually had just answered a phone call to schedule someone. The woman on the other end said, 'You're in a good mood,'" Pace said, explaining that she is so because, "I finally get to tell people 'yes.' It's a great day to get good news to those people who are in that demographic."

According to U.S. Census data, close to 30% of Wallowa County's population — roughly 2,000 to 2,100 individuals — falls into the 65-and-older category.

By late Wednesday afternoon, all 500 doses of the vaccine WMH has on-hand were accounted for, Pace said. The hospital is fielding calls to add people to a waiting list for when the next shipment arrives. Pace added there is no indication from the state of when that will be or how many will be coming.

To schedule an appointment or be placed on the waiting list, call 541-426-5437. Appointments will be scheduled on a first-come, first-served basis and subject to the amount of vaccine that is on-hand. Individuals who have questions or concerns about the vaccine are encouraged to contact their primary care provider.

The Moderna vaccine, which has been found to be about 95% effective, is given in two doses, 28 days apart.

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

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