FILE — Eugene vaccination site

Traffic attendants direct cars at a COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Eugene, Oregon on March 13, 2021. The drive-thru site, which typically administers 1,400 to 1,800 doses per day, is poised to ramp that rate up to 2,800 doses per day.

(The Center Square) – Oregon is moving up its priority vaccinations for virtually everyone but the general public while the rest of the nation surges ahead with its vaccine rollouts.

Starting on Monday, April 5, everyone with underlying health conditions 16 years and older will be eligible for shots along with frontline workers and their families, Gov. Kate Brown announced on Friday.

Underlying conditions, in Oregon's playbook, lines up with most CDC guidelines, which include diabetes, dementia, cancer, asthma, kidney disease, obesity, and a history of smoking. The state has now added smoking to its qualifying conditions after previously leaving it out.

Brown also announced on Friday that 70% of Oregonian seniors 65 and older have been fully vaccinated. The news comes weeks after GOP Oregon lawmakers staged a walkout protest in March over what they characterized as Brown's sluggish efforts to get shots into elders' arms. 

Adults ages 45 through 64 have been eligible for priority shots since March 29 in addition to farmworkers, food processors, pregnant women, and the homeless.

Matthew Vorderstrasse, development director of Rogue Retreat homeless shelter in Medford, says he's seeing a lot of excitement in Southern Oregon's homeless community for the vaccines.

"From the homeless to general community members, I've seen a decrease in hesitancy," Vorderstrasse said. "I think as more people get vaccinated and then see nothing bad is happening, that more people will be ready, and more willing to do that."

The shelter, which served some 1,000 people last year, has seen two cases to date, according to Vorderstrasse. He said that number is the byproduct of hard work, including rapid testing and working with public health officials to secure quarantine hotel rooms. The reality, he added, is that the homeless are cut off from others already.

"I will say that we haven't seen a huge increase in homeless in Southern Oregon that have been really affected by COVID," Vorderstrasse said. "Part of that is because of naturally homeless individuals are more socially distance away from the general community than we realize."

By the federal government's estimates, Oregon saw the single-largest decrease in homelessness of any state in 2020, but at almost 12,000 people, its homeless community is among the largest in the nation which the state is trying to house long-term.

State lawmakers, who have contended with at least two COVID cases at the Oregon Capitol, will get to roll up their sleeves for shots starting April 7 at their very own private drive-thru clinic, Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.

Brown gave no indication in her Friday news briefing whether she plans to move up the state's vaccine timeline for the general public which is currently May 1 by direction of the Biden administration. Twenty states are already offering shots to the general public while another 27 states plan to do so this month, including Washington and California.

On Friday, Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said the state's vaccine timeline will remain unaffected by the 15 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine lost to a factory incident back east.  

State epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger, noted on Friday that the state's newest COVID-19 forecast showed a bump in transmission rates in March. The forecast, which set the virus's estimated reproduction rate at 1.12, means every infected person is spreading it to more than one additional person.

On Thursday, the OHA reported 521 more cases and two more deaths from COVID, bringing the statewide case total to 165,524 and the death toll to 2,385 people. It also marks the largest case spike in more than a month as the 155 people are hospitalized with the disease.

That rate is of great concern to state health officials as cases surge around the state in line with national rates attributed to relaxed health guidelines. It is unknown what "breakthrough cases," if any, concern fully vaccinated patients, which Allen said the state is yet keeping track of.

Sidelinger said on Friday the spread likely has less to do with school reopenings, which will soon be statewide by order of Brown. Between January and March, 7.75% of cases reported on school grounds were traced to classroom exposures. About 56% of those cases were isolated ones, according to Sidelinger.

Still, the state has seen its seven-day rolling case average rise by 22%, the OHA reports, to 392 cases per day while positivity tests sit at 3.7%. 

As of Friday, the CDC's COVID Tracker pegged the number of fully vaccinated Oregonians at 17.5% with another 31% of the state still in the process. The latter percentage is several points behind 15 states including Texas, Florida, and New York.

Sidelinger urged Oregonians on Friday to continue abiding by the same state and federal health mandates that they have for the past year.

"More of us are getting vaccinated every week. While vaccinations are still increasing, we all have the tools to protect ourselves and our loved ones – wearing masks, keeping our distance, and limiting higher risk indoor gatherings," Sidelinger said. "This is not forever, just for now."

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.