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Oregon’s COVID-19 vaccination effort is picking up speed once again.

State officials announced on Friday, March 26, plans to open vaccine appointments to more groups sooner than originally planned, making frontline workers and other groups eligible for the vaccine starting April 5.

“In keeping with Oregon’s commitment to equity, this change gives frontline workers and other group seven populations more time to get vaccinated,” Oregon Health Authority (OHA) Director Patrick Allen said. “It also ensures that counties that have seen a plateau in demand among older adults can make sure they can continue to keep putting shots in arms at a rapid pace.”

Approximately 800,000 people were originally scheduled to become eligible two weeks ago, and now are able to get vaccines April 5. That group includes:

- Frontline workers as defined by the CDC

- Multigenerational household members

- Adults 16-44 with underlying health conditions

That group will join another set of individuals who became eligible last week in 22 counties, and are set to be eligible statewide by March 29 at the latest, including:

- All adults 45-64 with underlying health conditions

- Migrant and seasonal farm workers

- Seafood and agricultural workers

- Food processing workers

- People living in low-income senior housing, senior congregate and independent living

- Individuals experiencing homelessness

- People currently displaced by wildfires

- Wildland firefighters

- Pregnant people 16 and older

Complete eligibility lists and definitions of “underlying health conditions” and “frontline workers” are available on the state’s website at covidvaccine.oregon.gov/.

The newest timeline gives state and local health officials time to vaccinate higher-risk populations before vaccinations open to the general public by May 1.

That timeline could change, too — Allen announced counties may be able to move ahead in vaccinating the general population on April 26, if approved by OHA based on the county’s vaccination rate and appointment availability.

“We’ll ask counties to include an attestation that they’re ready to move forward, and to document their efforts to vaccinate previously eligible populations that they expect to have appointments available to expand sooner than May 1,” Allen said.

Friday’s news came as Oregon still lagged behind other states across the country in its rate of vaccinating seniors. About two thirds of Oregonians 65 and over have received a vaccine, putting the state around 35th in the country, according to OHA data.

“Oregon’s recent high rate of vaccinating seniors has put us closer to most other states in the percentage of seniors who’ve been immunized, but some counties continue to lag,” Allen said.

As always, the state’s new timeline is only achievable if it receives enough doses of the vaccine to administer shots to those eligible. State officials said they’d anticipated an additional 40,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine they didn’t end up receiving last week.

“We still expect to receive sufficient supplies of doses from the federal government to hit the eligibility timelines Governor Brown just announced,” Allen said. “Despite the disappointing shortfall in Johnson and Johnson (doses), the numbers continue to show that our total supplies will be adequate to vaccinate all Oregon adults by early June.”

The state will soon begin to hit a plateau in demand for the vaccine, and public health efforts will need to be redirected to encourage residents to get a vaccine, rather than managing limited supply, according to Allen.

“Right now, as we get deeper into the senior population, we’re seeing demand slow in some counties,” Allen said. “Some counties remain below 50% of seniors vaccinated — not because they don’t have appointments open. Some of the counties that are the furthest behind in vaccination rates are counties that conversely have our highest COVID-19 infection rates.”

Officials said Friday the vaccines already administered are having an impact, as Oregon’s trend of new virus cases is still decreasing.

“We continue to see a general trend of declining daily covid-19 cases, virus-related hospitalizations and positive test results as more Oregonians are getting vaccinated every day,” OHA State Epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said. “This is also because of the work of all Oregonians in continuing to wear masks, gather more safely and keep your distance.”

The state’s seven-day case average is down almost three-quarters from where it was at the beginning of the year, Sidelinger said, adding that newer, more dangerous variants of the virus have yet to take hold in Oregon as they have in other states.

And while masks, social distancing and other public health measures are still necessary to prevent those variants from spreading, Sidelinger said vaccinations will continue to be a useful tool in the fight against the pandemic.

“Based on our observation, we are confident that the existing vaccines can effectively prevent severe infection resulting in hospitalization or death,” Sidelinger said.

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