SALEM — All adults in Oregon will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations as of May 1 under a binding order from the Biden administration.
Appearing before the House Subcommittee on COVID-19, Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen said the policy U-turn was tied to future supplies of the federally controlled vaccine.
"So it's first come, first served, as of May 1?" asked Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Roseburg, vice-chairman of the committee.
"Yep, yep," Allen said.
Allen first discussed Oregon's new direction under President Joe Biden's order during an interview Wednesday, March 17, on Oregon Public Broadcasting's "Think Out Loud" radio program.
Biden had first announced his intention to give eligibility to all adults during a national television address on March 11.
"If we do this together, by July the 4th, there is a good chance you, your family and friends can get together in your backyard or in your neighborhood and have a cookout or a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day," he said.
Biden said Americans could "not only mark our independence as a nation but we begin to mark our independence from this virus."
Shortly after Biden's announcement, Gov. Kate Brown said the state would stick with its long-planned phased eligibility that would not match Biden's plan until July 1.
While praising the president's "audacious" timetable, Brown and Oregon health officials said the state couldn't commit to dismantling its priority system until there are guarantees additional vaccine would be sent to the states.
"We know the previous administration made previous announcements it was unable to fill," Allen said.
Both Brown and Allen had praised Biden as a more trustworthy supplier than under the administration of President Donald Trump. Brown in January had briefly opened up eligibility after a promise from Trump health officials that a new surge of supply was on the way. Two days later, she had to reverse her decision and put limits back in place.
Allen said after Biden's announcement that the state would need as much as double the 200,000 doses it was receiving per week in order to meet the May 1 goal without making the already difficult availability of shots even tougher on residents. He revised his estimate and said that it could perhaps be done with 300,000 doses per week.
On Wednesday, Allen told the COVID-19 subcommittee that the state was told its federal allotment of vaccine could be impacted if it did not follow Biden's mandate.
"It's a binding order," Allen said.
The directive was contained in a Department of Health and Human Services letter to states issued Wednesday.
Acting HHS Secretary Norris Cochran told states that the prioritization some had instituted in the early months after the vaccine became first available in December were no longer necessary.
"Given substantial increases in the supply of vaccines, it is appropriate to transition beyond priority groups," Cochran said.
Brown did not comment on the policy change, despite requests from the media.
Allen said health officials are optimistic that there would be a large increase in shipments of the three vaccines: the two-shot version by Pfizer and Moderna, and the recently introduced one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Allen did not supply any specific numbers as to what the state might receive. He said that while eligibility would be open, the state would still try to control availability to reach the most vulnerable left on the priority list.
One option is to move up the dates of the next two priority groups.
Oregon is currently limiting shots to health workers, residents of nursing homes, educators and daycare workers, and most recently, all residents age 65 and older as of March 1.
The next eligible group can seek shots March 29. The group of about 530,000 people includes adults age 45, and older with specific medical issues, pregnant women age 16 and older, agricultural and other food-processing workers, homeless people, residents of low-income housing, those displaced by last year's wildfires and wildland firefighters.
Under its phased priority plan, another group of about 550,000 people would be eligible on May 1, the day Biden set for lifting all eligibility requirements for adults.
Brown on that date planned to extend the vaccine sign-ups to front-line workers (those who deal daily with the public), those living in multigenerational households, and those age 16-44 with certain medical conditions.
On June 1, everyone age 45 and older would have been eligible. On July 1, all adults would have been able to seek shots. There is currently no vaccine approved for children under 16.