Falling COVID-19 infection rates will allow the state to lift some restrictions on businesses and activities over the next three weeks, the state's top health official said Monday.
Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen told the Senate Committee on Health Care that the infection rate in Oregon had dropped to 5.1% for the week of Jan. 17, the lowest rate since late October.
The rate has been steadily dropping since the first week of January and has reached a point where growth in the daily number of cases is expected to stay relatively flat or drop further.
The rates means the state can move more of the state's 36 counties lower on the four-tier risk level measures. The latest two-week ratings will be released in the next two days and will show some counties dropping a level, while no county's risk level is on the rise.
"It's the hard work of Oregonians," Allen told the panel.
Allen said Oregon has the fourth lowest infection rate and the fifth lowest death rate of the 50 states.
Allen said that if the trend sustains for another two weeks, several more counties will move down the risk level scale, including some with larger populations.
Gov. Kate Brown is also expected to make an announcement this week to allow some gyms and other indoor recreation to operate again.
The lower rate of infection is good news as the state continues to struggle with obtaining enough of the new Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to ramp up inoculations. The two-shot vaccines are the key to ending the pandemic that has killed 420,000 people nationwide, including 1,882 Oregonians.
"Our real challenge right now is just flat out not having enough vaccine," Allen said. The state has received more than 492,000 doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines that have been approved for use on adults. The vaccines require two shots space about a month apart.
Oregon is currently on pace to get more than 12,000 shots administered per day. Allen said that OHA estimates 3.2 million adults are eligible for vaccination, meaning that the state will need 6.4 million doses of vaccine to finish the job.
Allen said the state had enough centers for inoculation and qualified workers to give the shots. It just didn't have vaccine to put to work.
There is hope that new vaccines from Astra Zeneca, Johnson & Johnson and others will be approved and increase the flow of available doses across the country.
Allen said with only the two approved vaccines and the current projected rate of supply coming to the state each week, some Oregonians will not be inoculated until the end of 2021 or beyond.
The state is currently working through the highest priority group: Health care workers, plus residents and staff of nursing homes that have accounted for over half of the deaths in Oregon.
Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, a member of the committee, said he'd heard from constituents upset with Brown's decision to vaccinate about 150,000 educators and school workers next as a step to getting schools reopened this spring.
Those over 65 are the most likely to suffer severe illness or die from COVID-19, with fatality rates rising as people get into their 70s, 80s, or 90s. After waiting nearly a year in fear and sometimes isolation, the word that they will have to wait longer because of a desire to reopen schools is difficult to accept.
"They are very, very unhappy about it," Knopp said.
Allen said that the federal guidelines calling for seniors living outside of nursing homes as the next priority are "advisory" with each state being able to make its own decisions.
"We had to ask, what are our priorities going to be?" Allen said.
Moving the schools group ahead of seniors meant the start date for inoculation of older Oregonians living independently was pushed back from Monday to Feb. 8. Even then, only those over 80 can apply at first. The eligibility age will drop five years each week, until those 65 and over are eligible March 1.
Oregon is the only state that has placed educators above seniors in priority for the vaccine.
Allen defended the decision, saying that Brown and OHA are trying to balance a variety of health needs. Getting educators vaccinated could return children to in-class instruction, which state education experts say will improve their learning, as well as emotional and physical health.
"We are trying to accommodate a lot of different health objectives," Allen said. "We are making progress."
Opponents of Brown's decision to prioritize teachers and school workers say that there is no guarantee that teachers will return to the classroom if children aren't vaccinated. Some educators have expressed concern that children could infect each other and while they are unlikely to become severely ill, they could infect parents and grandparents at home.
Critics have also said no matter how long the delay before inoculations will begin for older Oregonians, it means some will get ill and some will die during the gap.
OHA has declined to estimate the number of deaths.
Allen also said the process is slowed somewhat by the effort of the state to ensure that all those in the first priority group get a chance to be vaccinated, including health caregivers for the elderly in most distant locations in the state.
"There is a tension between go thorough and go fast," Allen said. "If fast is the only things we focus on, we leave some really vulnerable people behind."
Allen also acknowledged that Oregonians will find there is a difference between eligibility and availability.
The state has not finished inoculating the highest priority workers, though it has started vaccinating educators. Even when seniors are eligible, the other two groups will likely still be receiving shots.
"We will have three different population groups open at the same time," Allen said. "That is going to create a demand challenge at the time of a supply challenge. That is going to be hairy."