Vaccine likely to hit Oregon this month, but worsening Covid spread is still expected

Gov. Kate Brown in her Portland office (FILE/Salem Reporter)

SALEM – Gov. Kate Brown said Friday that Oregon stands “on the brink of a full-blown crisis” with its pandemic and warned the number of daily Covid infections could double by Christmas.

The forecast came as the state on Friday crossed a grim threshold, reporting that deaths related to Covid topped 1,000. The state listed 30 more deaths on Friday, adding up to more than 100 in just the past week out of 1,003 since the pandemic hit in January.

Those trends suggest the virus is spreading more quickly among Oregonians, raising the number of people who will become seriously ill and require care in a hospital. They mean Oregonians will almost certainly enter the new year with continued restrictions on business and social gatherings in place.

The governor and her health advisers held out hope for the state, sharing in a briefing with reporters that limited doses of two vaccines for Covid will arrive in Oregon within weeks.

Hospital workers caring for Covid patients will receive the first shots. But expected December shipments would cover less than half of the state’s health care workforce, and vaccines for most Oregonians are still months away.

“Our new modeling confirms our worst fears – that this pandemic can indeed get much worse before we get the majority of our population vaccinated and it likely will,” Brown said.

Health advisers repeated warnings that winter will spell the most serious part of the pandemic.

“The surge in Oregon, as is the case around the country, continues unabated and only continues to get worse,” said Pat Allen, Oregon Health Authority director. “The toughest times in this crisis for our state lie ahead.”

The modeling released Friday suggests Oregon could record up to 2,700 new Covid cases daily by Dec. 24, 110 of them serious enough to require hospitalization or cause death. The daily number in recent weeks has hovered between 1,100 and 1,600 cases.

As of Dec. 3, 559 Oregonians were hospitalized with Covid, up from 521 one week ago.

Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist, said Friday’s high case count could reflect more people getting tested immediately after Thanksgiving.

“The record high number today we hope is not a pattern,” he said. But he cautioned, “we’ve broken records that we never thought were possible to break here in Oregon.”

A less grim model assumes the virus continues spreading in Oregon at about the same rate as it was before Thanksgiving. If that’s the case, Oregon would expect closer to 2,000 new daily Covid cases by Christmas, about 75 of them severe.

Relief is in sight for hospital workers, who are first in line to receive doses of a vaccine starting in mid-December.

Two vaccines are expected to gain federal approval for limited use next week – one made by Pfizer and one by Moderna. Both require two doses, spaced several weeks apart, for full protection.

Allen said Oregon expects to receive 35,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to ship Dec. 15, with 40,950 more shipping the following week. Another 71,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine are expected to ship the following week.

That would give the state 147,000 first doses of vaccine by the end of the year, enough to cover about half of the state’s 300,000 estimated health care workers. Second doses would ship Dec. 29, Allen said.

Brown said the first priority for vaccination will be people with direct exposure to Covid patients. That group includes long-term care facility workers and residents, as well as hospital janitors who come into contact with infectious material.

Oregon expects to vaccinate everyone in those groups by the end of January, she said.

Rachael Banks, Oregon Health Authority’s public health division director, said clinical trials for both showed effectiveness near 95%, and no volunteers who received the vaccine developed severe Covid infections.

“That is almost unheard of,” Banks said referring to the vaccine’s effectiveness.

A second phase of vaccine distribution would focus on people most at-risk from Covid, a broad group that could include elderly people, people with underlying health issues, teachers, grocery store workers, prisoners, homeless people, tribal members and farmworkers.

Brown said Friday she intends to use early vaccine doses to allow schools to resume in-person, though the state’s vaccine plan does not yet offer specifics. Neither leading vaccine has been approved for use in children, though trials for both are underway.

Allen said OHA will hold discussions with community leaders in December to develop a more detailed plan for prioritizing people and distributing the vaccine to those high-risk groups.

After those groups, a third phase calls for more general vaccine availability for Oregonians not already covered.

Health officials said it’s still too early to tell how Thanksgiving gatherings may impact cases going forward, but transportation and cell phone location data show more Oregonians have been staying home in recent weeks.

“Many of you are taking the right steps to stop the spread of this disease,” Brown said. “Hope is on the way.”

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