Oregon State University faculty members took a whack Tuesday at unlocking the challenges the state is facing in getting COVID-19 vaccines to those who need them.
“Less than one-third of the vaccines around have been distributed in Oregon,” noted Daniel Lopez-Cevallos, an associate professor of ethnic studies. “Vaccine distribution has been slow and we need to speed that up."
That’s the bad news.
Joseph Agor, an assistant professor of industrial engineering, sees a bright side: “there has been a steady increase in the Oregon Health Authority reports on vaccine distribution.” The total surpassed 10,000 in Tuesday's OHA report.
But the upshot is clear: It has been a challenge for Oregon to make progress in this area. The faculty members present at a virtual press conference identified several reasons for the delays, including priorities, hospital resources, health equity issues and messaging, as well as cultural and political factors that lead some groups and individuals to opt out of receiving the vaccine.
“Oregon’s prioritization process has slowed down the process of distribution,” said Lopez-Cevallos, who noted that Oregon is inoculating teachers and school staff as part of its first phase, although individuals in those groups are not considered high risk.
“Gov. Brown wants to reopen schools in February,” he said. “That also needs to be taken into consideration.”
Courtney Campbell, director of OSU’s program in medical humanities, said “it’s hard to justify including teachers and school staff. I know it’s important to get schools involved, but how do you compare that to those at high risk?"
Medical resources also are an issue.
“Sometimes there are not enough people at the hospital to process vaccinations,” Agor said. “Hospital staff still have to tend to patients, COVID or not.”
“Hospitals are inundated by requests for the vaccine," said Beth Marino, an associate professor of anthropology at OSU’s Cascades campus in Bend. “But you have some groups that are clamoring and some groups that are hesitant. There are a lot of class distinctions there. And it’s very important to have equitable distribution.”
Marino has been working with Deschutes County on how to communicate with residents about the vaccine and bridge the urban-rural divide.
“We don’t have a lot of answers yet,” she said. “We’re still working with the county on the data.”
Marino noted national surveys that looked at the messaging issues. These surveys found that for people who identify as conservative or libertarian, messages of taking care of family members or being patriotic tended to work best. Taking care of elders also works well as a message for a wide swath of individuals, she said.
“We’re working with focus groups,” Marino said, while emphasizing that it is “not just an education strategy. You need to develop a back-and-forth dialogue with communities that have the distrust. We need to have cultural humility. You don’t know what messages will work. And those messages need to come from the ground up. We need to talk to people and respect those conversations. This is hard.”
The faculty members also called for national collaboration on messaging.
“We need (President-elect) Biden and (infectious disease expert) Anthony Fauci and regular Oregonians to do PSAs (public service announcements)," Campbell said. "We need to explain to reluctant people how it went and what sort of side effects there were.”
“It’s a national problem and we have no national strategy,” Lopez-Cevallos said. “You have 50 different strategies … and then there is the county level.”
One participant in the forum asked about success stories elsewhere.
Lopez-Cevallos noted that New Jersey, the District of Columbia and West Virginia all were considered positive examples, with West Virginia already out of its high-risk phase and moving on to add school employees.
Then there is Florida.
“Florida planned to vaccinate everyone over 65 and they were overwhelmed,” Lopez-Cevallos said.
Campbell strongly opposes the “mass vaccination” concept in which a community or county could invite all-comers to a large hall or building.
“We don’t have enough vaccine to go around,” he said. “If you vaccinate people at lower risk, people who are at higher risk will lose out. A mass distribution will be detrimental to those who don’t have good access to the health-care system.”
The faculty members also viewed as positive further development of vaccines that will be added to the Pfizer and Moderna models currently being used.
“All vaccinations must be celebrated because it means we won’t be spreading the virus to other people,” said Gaurav Sahay, an associate professor in OSU’s College of Pharmacy and an expert on vaccine development. “I’m optimistic that other vaccines on the way are easier to make. Everybody should get a shot in the arm.”