SALEM — Despite the imminent arrival of the first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, Oregon will likely have thousands more killed and tens of thousands infected before the mass majority of residents can be vaccinated, state officials said Friday, Dec. 11.
"We can't vaccinate everybody at once, so the sad truth is there will be more infections and more deaths," Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen said.
Allen said Oregon had been one of the best states in the nation at wearing masks, keeping social distance and limiting gatherings. Since the pandemic began in February, Oregon ranks 45th among states for infection rate per capita. On Friday, Oregon reported 1,610 new cases, bringing the pandemic total to 91,421. Another 16 deaths were reported, with the death toll now at 1,138. Severe cases required 576 patients to be hospitalized as of Friday, up 70% from mid-November.
Allen said that if Oregon had the median infection rate in the country, there would be an additional 2,000 dead.
Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state's top infectious disease expert, said that statistics coming in are not showing a major spike over the Thanksgiving holiday.
The biggest news is the arrival within days of the first doses of a Pfizer vaccine for COVID-19. About 6.7 million doses will be sent to states based on their percentage of the national adult population.
Oregon is expected to receive 35,100 doses to be used as the first two shots needed from immunity. The state will then distribute the vaccine to nine unnamed hospitals that have the ability to store the medicine at the required -70 degrees to maintain its potency..
But even this hopeful news has been tempered by reports of production bottlenecks at Pfizer's manufacturing facility in Brussels. After promising in September to provide 100 million doses to the United States by the end of the year, it has cut that goal in half.
Currently, Oregon is assured of 147,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine by Jan. 1. What happens after that time is unknown. The United States had a chance to prepurchase another 500 million doses from Pfizer, but opted to take "options" for possible additional purchases. But other countries pre-purchased the stock of vaccines offered to Americans. When additional Pfizer deliveries resume is unknown, though it could be as late as June.
Allen said the pandemic has caused delays and shortages before, so he won't be counting his doses ahead of time.
"Until we actually see vaccines show up on the loading dock, I would not want to make a prediction on how long it is going to take," Allen said.
A second vaccine made by Moderna is expected to win federal approval next week. Oregon is slated to get just over 116,000 doses over the next three weeks.
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots spaced about three weeks apart. The current guaranteed shipments will be used to vaccinate the estimated 300,000 medical and care facility workers who come into direct contact with possible COVID-19 positive patients. The next rounds will go to the older patients in congregate settings such as nursing homes and long-term care facilities, which have accounted for more than half of all deaths in Oregon.
Brown said the goal is to ratchet up vaccinations to 10,000 per day until the 2.6 million adults in the state who want the shots can get them. The current vaccines are not approved for children.
A state survey shows that approximately half of all adults do not want to take the vaccine.
"Oregon is also one of the states where we are challenged with the number of folks who are opposed to vaccination," Brown said. "We have on of the lowest child immunization rates in the country."
The state will roll out an aggressive program to reach out to all adults and try to convince them to be immunized.
There are more than 55 other vaccines under development, with many already testing on humans. The increase in options for vaccines, as well as training more people how to give the shots, will eventually ramp up to the point that the state will knock out the virus as an epidemic.
"Thanksgiving and Christmas should look very different in 2021," Sidelinger said.
There is hope that more vaccines and more health workers who can give the shots could shorten the timeline so that enough Oregonians are vaccinated by June or July. But Allen said not to nail down any specific timeline.
"This isn't going to be forever, but this is going to be a while," he said.