PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon made national headlines when it placed teachers ahead of its oldest residents in the line for a scarce supply of COVID-19 vaccine and then again when a committee advising the governor on vaccine equity flirted with making race a determinant for when a person could get inoculated.
Now, three months into the vaccine rollout, the state has begun a pilot program that allows some federally qualified health centers to offer shots to anyone they serve, even if that patient does not fall into any currently eligible categories. These centers must still prioritize patients who are currently eligible under Oregon rules, but the pilot program gives health care providers for the most at-risk populations more latitude and resolves a conflict between federal and state priorities on vaccine equity.
The Biden administration last month began distributing vaccine to federally qualified health centers under a program designed to get shots into the arms of the most economically and socially disadvantaged Americans — seasonal and migrant farmworkers and those Americans living in poverty, for example.
But those centers in Oregon and Washington found their hands tied because state rules on vaccine eligibility hadn’t yet expanded to migrant farmworkers, those with pre-existing conditions or other vulnerable groups and so they couldn’t give them shots.
The disconnect was “incredibly frustrating,” but the pilot program in Oregon will resolve those issues, said Lori Kelley, senior director of quality at the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, which treats 180,000 patients a year in eastern Washington and western Oregon. About one-third of those patients are seasonal farmworkers, she said, and the clinics offer treatment regardless of ability to pay.
“They are living in a congregate setting, four to six to a room, head-to-toe and they work, live, eat and sleep in cohorts. If one person in their cohort gets sick, then they all miss work time,” she said.
Kelley’s organization is petitioning Washington state to create a similar pilot program there. Washington currently allows residents over 65, health care workers, first responders and people over 50 living in multi-generational households — children, parents and grandparents — to get the vaccine.
In Oregon, those who can get a shot now include health care workers and first responders, teachers and early childhood educators and residents over age 65. Those over age 45 with a pre-existing condition, seasonal and migrant farmworkers, food processors, the homeless and those affected by last summer’s wildfires will become eligible on March 29.
President Joe Biden’s announcement Thursday that all Americans should be eligible for a vaccine by May 1 only underscores the importance of the pilot program when it comes to meeting that goal in Oregon.
“We do have so many people from that next phase who are waiting as patiently as possible to get this vaccine and not to have to make that choice every day between feeding their family and getting sick is just amazing,” Kelley said of the Oregon pilot.
Rudy Owens, a spokesperson for the Oregon Health Authority, said the seven health centers are scheduled to receive a combined total of 3,700 doses per week from the state’s vaccine allocation.
Owens said that the health centers have been given the “flexibility” to vaccinate any individual they serve — this includes anyone 16 and older — but the health authority is asking that the centers try to use the eligibility phases as guidelines when choosing who to vaccinate.
The health authority and the governor’s office will review the outcomes from pilot project over the next several weeks.
Based on data from the health authority, white people represent 75% of Oregonians. While they only comprise about 49% of coronavirus cases, they account for 71% of vaccinations.
People who are Hispanic represent 13% of Oregonians but make up 26% of COVID-19 cases and account for 4% of the vaccinations administered to date. Black people are 2% of the state’s population and account for 1% of administered vaccine.
Officials are hopeful that the new pilot program will help diminish these disparities.
The health centers that are part of the program include La Clinica del Valle, Multnomah County Health Centers and Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, which have a focus on serving Oregon’s diverse communities.
Cline is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.