Oregon is renowned for doggedly refusing to defer to trends that most states embrace, and in matters such as self-serve refueling and sales taxes, the state’s independence is defensible, and to some, admirable.
It’s not dangerous, at any rate.
But Gov. Kate Brown’s decision to give teachers and other school employees priority over senior citizens for receiving COVID-19 vaccinations is not defensible.
And for the older Oregonians who are affected, the governor’s decision is undeniably dangerous.
Brown’s preference is perplexing in multiple ways. Most notably, it blatantly ignores the disproportionate toll the virus has taken on Oregonians 70 and older.
Of the nearly 1,900 Oregonians whose deaths were related to COVID-19, almost 77% were 70 or older, according to the Oregon Health Authority. Yet that group makes up just 9% of the states’s COVID-19 cases. The virus is even more dangerous for residents 80 and older. That group constitutes almost 53% of the state’s virus deaths, despite having just 4% of the positive tests.
Most teachers and school workers, meanwhile, are younger than 60, an age range that in Oregon accounts for just 8.6% of the COVID-19 deaths.
Given those statistics, which are not dramatically different in other states, it’s little wonder that 48 states are giving priority for vaccinations to senior citizens rather than to education workers.
Oregon was, until recently, supposed to be among those states. Brown announced in mid-January that people 65 and older would be offered vaccinations starting Jan. 23.
But the governor changed the plan — and not in a minor way, with inoculations for people between 65 and 69 delayed for more than five weeks — a few days later. She blamed the federal government for promising an increase in vaccine doses that wasn’t actually available.
Except that issue wasn’t unique to Oregon.
Every other state was affected. Yet according to research by The Oregonian, 45 other states have started, or soon will start, making older residents a priority for vaccinations.
During a Friday, Jan. 22 press conference, Brown not only failed to justify her decision to delay vaccinations for senior citizens, she made a statement that was appallingly audacious.
“I want to be very, very clear,” the governor said. “I have prioritized protecting seniors since day one of this response. And as a result Oregon is faring better than nearly every other state in the nation.”
That last statement, though statistically valid, is also meaningless in the context of current vaccination priorities. The point is not comparing Oregon to other states. The point is that senior citizens in this state are vastly more likely to die from COVID-19, and thus they are the group for whom a vaccine is most likely to be a lifesaver. Putting teachers ahead of seniors in the inoculation line is the precise opposite of Brown’s claim to have “prioritized protecting seniors.”
But perhaps even more galling was this comment from the governor: “I am asking seniors to hold tight and to stay safe for just a few more weeks.”
First, it’s not just a few weeks for Oregonians between 65 and 69. They won’t be offered the vaccine until Feb. 28, more than a month away.
Second, Brown’s request for seniors to “stay safe” is cold comfort for the families of the older Oregonians who continue to make up the majority of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.
Of the 13 deaths reported on Saturday, Jan. 23, 10 were older than 70. On Friday, Jan. 22, a total of 22 new deaths were reported — 16 were older than 65. Each of the five Baker County residents who have died after contracting COVID-19 were older than 80.
For them, it’s too late to “hold tight and to stay safe.”
— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor