Oregon faces short staffing and not enough customers to inject 1 million booster shots

Syringes of the Pfizer vaccine during a COVID-19 vaccine clinic. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Oregon officials are still working out details on how they will get 1 million booster doses into the arms of Oregonians by the end of January in the scramble to head off a feared surge of the omicron variant.

Gov. Kate Brown announced the ambitious goal just last Friday after getting an alarming new forecast that predicted that Oregon hospitals might not have enough staffed beds by early February because of the new Covid variant.

But that goal is daunting, requiring that vaccinators triple the pace of shots – provided enough Oregonians willing to get them.

This week, state officials had high hopes but few details of how that would get done.

The Oregon Health Authority promised to add three new high-capacity vaccination sites around the state in addition to the six that already exist. State officials don’t know where they will go, though.

“We are currently vetting regions and locations,” the agency said in an emailed response to questions from the Capital Chronicle.

The agency also hasn’t determined how many people it would like to get boosted by the end of the week.

“OHA is currently in process of developing our intermediate goals for booster administration rates and conferring with the governor’s office,” a spokesperson said in an email. 

Once officials decide where to place the new sites, they will have to staff them, and that remains a big hurdle for the agency. 

Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, said on Friday that the state has plenty of doses. What it lacks is staff to administer them, he said.There are currently 15,000 health care positions open in Oregon, according to the state Employment Department. The health authority said it doesn’t intend to shift Oregon health care professionals currently working to its high-capacity sites or to help with its booster campaign. 

The 1,600 National Guard troops that were mobilized to help hospitals cope with a surge in patients this summer have now gone home, and Brown has not mobilized them again.

The plan is to bring in more professionals from out of state through temporary staffing agencies, and redeploy some of those who are already here, a spokesperson told the Capital Chronicle in an email.

“Some will continue on their current assignments in hospitals, long-term care, EMS agencies, etc., and others will be assigned to meet new requests,” the agency said.

It provided no more details about the numbers of new workers to be recruited or the cost.

The agency didn’t address how it can find such workers when they’re in high demand across the country, and omicron cases are increasing. 

Oregon currently has contracts with four staffing firms for at least 1,000 professionals, from nurses and certified nursing assistants to mental health technicians and EMT specialists. Many of them were brought in to help overtaxed hospitals when delta cases were surging this summer. 

Others have been assigned to the children’s residential treatment system, which has been in crisis of collapse. 

A spokesman said that 60 extra health care workers from staffing agencies were ready for new assignments in Oregon this week.

According to the latest state data, nearly 30% of adults in Oregon – about 1 million – had received a booster dose by Sunday, Dec. 19. A month earlier, that stood at 18%, or 622,000 people. 

To reach its 1 million booster shot goal, the state would need to triple the number of shots being Plenty of people still need boosters. 

According to figures released to the Capital Chronicle, between 50% and 60% of those eligible for a booster in each of the seven health care regions in Oregon have not yet had one.

Marion County ranks fifth in the state among counties with the most adults left to vaccinate: 13,000. About 125,000 have not received a booster. 

The Marion County Public Health Department didn’t respond Tuesday to a request for comment. However, an official at Salem Health, the main vaccinator in the county, told the Capital Chronicle that its Salem hospital has plenty of doses and staff to step up vaccinations.

“We’ve seen very steady volume,” said Josh Franke, chief project officer at Salem Health. “There is not an access issue.”

The hospital system has been giving about 800 shots a week. Anyone else who’d like a booster could get one tomorrow, he said.

In addition to creating more access, the state needs to stress the importance of getting boosted, Franke said.

“The purpose of a booster is to get our immune system back to where it was” after getting the second shot, Franke said. “I don’t think that message is shared enough.”

That message is apparently not getting through in many rural counties, like Lake and Malheur, which both have low vaccination rates. Health officials in those counties told the Capital Chronicle they have plenty of shots and staff.

Douglas County public health officials are giving 2,000 booster shots a week. According to state figures, the county has 21,000 people aged 18 and over to be vaccinated, the second highest in the state. County health officials dispute the state’s figures, however, saying the state hasn’t included vaccination data from Veterans Affairs, for example.

Nevertheless, a spokeswoman told the Capital Chronicle that the county has enough vaccine and personnel.

“We have more than enough vaccines right now, and we have ample opportunity/staff for people to sign up and get the booster in Douglas County through our open events, local health care providers, tribal health programs, the VA and pharmacies,” Tamara Howell said in an email.

A health care clinic in Roseburg that serves many low-income residents is currently giving 150 booster shots a week and about an equal number of regular Covid vaccinations, it said in a statement to the Capital Chronicle. Dennis Eberhardt, senior director of operations at Aviva Health, said there’s been a recent uptick in demand.To double the number of shots, he said the clinic could use five more health care workers. It currently has no extra staff from the state.

“Our local potential employee pool is close to depleted,” Eberhardt wrote. “Even untrained, but trainable and reliable persons are in short supply.”  

Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Care Center in Washington County, which also serves low-income residents, also lacks health care workers to increase booster shots from the 475 it gave last week. The county has the second highest vaccination rate in the state after Hood River County, at 85% of adults. Nearly 33% of adults in the county have gotten booster doses.

That contrasts with Jackson County, which was hit hard during the delta surge in September. Nearly 23,000 adults remain to be vaccinated in Jackson County – the most of any county in the state, according to state data. 

So far, 67% of adults in Jackson County have had one dose, which is about the mid-range in Oregon, compared with a state high of 85% in Washington county and a low of 45% in Lake County. State data show that nearly 29% of adults in Jackson County have gotten a booster dose. 

Tripling its booster shots would be difficult at the moment, according to Dr. Jim Shames, the county’s medical director and health officer.

“The problem is not so much that we’re running out of vaccine,” Shames said. “We don’t have enough customers.”

One of the state’s high-capacity vaccination sites is at the Jackson County Expo center. Tanya Phillips, health promotion program manager for the county, told the Capital Chronicle in an email that the site is averaging 300 vaccinations a day.

She said if shots were going to be stepped up, the county would need more staff and more demand.

“It remains critical that people who have not been vaccinated do so as soon as possible and for people to finish the vaccination series,” Phillips said.

But they won’t have much opportunity to do so over the holidays when people potentially have more free time. The vaccination center at the expo center will be closed from Dec. 23 through Dec. 26 and from Dec. 31 through Jan. 1. The other five high-capacity sites in Redmond, Springfield, Salem, Gresham and Beaverton will also be closed over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. 

The Oregon Health Authority did not respond to a question about why it is closing the sites, even for a few days, at a time when it says that increasing vaccination rates in Oregon is a priority.

Capital Chronicle reporter Alex Baumhardt contributed to this story.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: [email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.