State restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic have ended, and Baker County’s rate of new cases has remained well below a spring peak during April, but Nancy Staten is concerned that the county’s relatively low vaccination rate makes the county vulnerable to future outbreaks.
Staten is director of the Baker County Health Department.
“COVID has not left our community,” Staten said on July 6. “I still encourage vaccination.”
As of July 9, Baker County’s vaccination rate — 44.9% of residents 16 and older — ranked as 10th lowest among Oregon’s 36 counties.
It is the second-highest rate, though, among eight counties in Eastern Oregon — Baker, Union, Wallowa, Umatilla, Harney, Malheur, Morrow and Grant.
In that group, only Wallowa County, at 56.6%, has a higher vaccination rate than Baker County.
Staten said she worries that with fewer than half of Baker County residents vaccinated, COVID-19 case rates, which have averaged slightly fewer than two per day since May 1, could rise again, with more contagious variants, most notably the delta variant, beginning to spread.
There have been three cases of the delta variant in Umatilla County, but none in Baker County.
“We want our community to be healthy,” Staten said.
Oregon’s statewide vaccination rate among residents 16 and older is 66.8%.
Among age groups, the statewide vaccination rate ranges from 42.5% for people age 12 to 15 — who have been eligible to be vaccinated only since May — to 83.2% among Oregonians ages 70 to 79.
Baker County’s vaccination rates range from 13.9% for ages 12 to 15, to 67.7% for residents 80 or older.
The county’s highest rates, in common with statewide figures, are for people 70 and older, who were eligible starting in January or February.
That’s also the age range where the gap between Baker County’s vaccination rate and the statewide rate is smallest.
Among people 80 and older, Baker County’s rate of 67.7% is less than 10 percentage points below Oregon’s average of 77.4%.
The difference between Baker County’s and Oregon’s rates is 18.5 percentage points among people in their 70s.
In all other age groups, the gap between the county and statewide rate ranges from 22.1% (ages 60-69) to 34.1% (ages 30-39).
Staten said she understands that younger residents are less likely to be vaccinated given that people 70 and older are at a much higher risk of dying if they’re infected.
In Oregon, 74% of the 2,792 people whose deaths are attributed to COVID-19 were 70 or older, according to the Health Authority.
Of the 15 deaths in Baker County, all but one were older than 70 (the exception was a 59-year-old man).
Baker County has had three COVID-19 deaths since March 11, and none since May 15.
But Staten also points out that the percentage of cases in the county among people younger than 70 has increased substantially since late March.
In some two-week periods since then, the highest percentage of new cases has been among people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.
For the most recent period the Health Department has measured, June 16-30, almost 41% of new cases were among county residents in their 50s.
Another 18% were people in their 40s, and almost 14% were in their 60s or in their 20s.
The average number of vaccinations given in Baker County has plummeted since a series of clinics at Baker High School in February, March and early April.
The county administered 3,034 doses — 26% of its total doses — on just five days during that period.
The county hasn’t given more than 96 doses in any day since June 11. The biggest daily number since then was 39, on June 17, and the county’s seven-day running average of doses administered has ranged from 17 to 20 since June 20.
Stephanie Johnson, a registered nurse from Richland, said she has declined to be vaccinated in part because she has “essentially no risk of dying.”
Johnson, 33, also said she’s leery of taking a vaccine that the federal government has approved only for emergency use, and for which no long-term studies exist about the potential side effects.
“I’m not anti-vax at all,” Johnson said. “I personally don’t want to be part of a medical study.”
She said the COVID-19 vaccines are a “great option” for people who are at a higher risk of becoming severely ill if they’re infected.
But Johnson said she doesn’t believe government officials should try to “coerce” people into being vaccinated.
“It’s a choice,” she said. “For me, the risk is higher than the benefit. Medical decisions should be between the patient and provider.”