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What older Oregonians need to know on the long road to vaccination

If you’re an older Oregonian who’s desperate to get a COVID-19 vaccine in Oregon, it’s been a frustrating few weeks.

People living in congregate settings are already being widely vaccinated, but unlike most other states, Oregon hasn’t yet begun getting doses to the larger population of older adults.

In mid-January, it looked like educators and people over the age of 65 were at the front of the line for Phase 1b of the state’s vaccination plan. On January 12th, Governor Brown said both groups would become eligible for the vaccine on the 23rd.

But three days later, the Governor dropped a bombshell on Twitter: she said “States will not be receiving increased shipments of vaccines from the national stockpile next week, because there is no federal reserve of doses.”

That meant Oregon had to revise its vaccination timeline, and Governor Brown made the controversial decision to prioritize education staff ahead of older Oregonians.

A week later, the Governor presented a revised timeline for vaccination:

That means some older Oregonians who were recently expecting to be eligible this week will now be waiting another six weeks before they even have the chance to be vaccinated.

It’s an agonizing delay for a population that’s vulnerable to COVID-19′s most deleterious effects. People 70 and older have accounted for 77% of COVID-19 deaths, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

Dr. Elizabeth Eckstrom is the Chief of Geriatrics at Oregon Health and Science University. She says she sees the disappointment in the patients she treats every day.

“Just the thought that the vaccine is coming is really exciting,” Eckstrom says, “so a lot of people are feeling very acutely that they’re not able to see family yet; they’re not able to get out and do the things that they care about.”

Still, Dr. Eckstrom says the decision to give Oregon’s 152,000 teachers, early childhood workers and other school employees a head-start on vaccination isn’t a bad idea.

“If educators are not vaccinated until after older adults, it means schools probably won’t be able to reopen at all this year,” she says. “We need to consider all members of our state, and vaccinating educators now is worth it.”

Once vaccinations for adults age 80-and-over begin on Monday, February 8th, they will mostly be available at large vaccination sites like the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. Eckstrom says this could pose an accessibility challenge for older adults who don’t drive. She says there’s no comprehensive plan in place to get vaccines to people who are completely home-bound.

“There really may not be any way for them to get out to these large vaccination sites,” Eckstrom says, “and many clinics, including my own, are not planning on vaccinating people within our clinic.”

That means it’s up to us. Eckstrom says that if you know an older adult, you should volunteer to take them to get vaccinated. She also says seniors need to be courageous about reaching out to friends, family members and church groups.

“Obviously it means getting in the car with someone,” Eckstrom says, “but wear your mask, wash your hands and take that risk to get your vaccine.”

In the meantime, Dr. Eckstrom says it’s both essential for older Oregonians to maintain physical distance, and also to also stay as socially connected as possible. As people age, long periods of isolation can accelerate cognitive decline. Both regular communication and exercise are essential to make it through this pandemic as healthy as possible. She says it’s not only safe to go on a socially-distanced walk with a friend or family member—it’s essential.

Dr. Eckstrom says she’s regularly reminding her patients that despite the headlines, Oregonians are in good shape to weather the pandemic safely.

“We are the fifth-lowest state for COVID deaths in the US,” she says. “Our rate of transmission is one of the lowest in the country. Our rate of deaths is one of the lowest in the country. If we all just buckle down and keep doing what we’re doing … we really have been doing a good job this far and we will make it through until we get this vaccine.”

Listen to Dr. Eckstrom’s interview with OPB “Weekend Edition” host John Notarianni using the audio player above

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

John Notarianni