Governor Defends Decision to Vaccinate Teacher before Seniors

Governor Kate Brown on Friday defended her decision to prioritize the state’s limited supply of Covid-19 vaccinations for educators over senior citizens — who are known to be the most vulnerable population to serious complications and death from the coronavirus.

At a press conference with Oregon health and education officials, Brown underscored the “long-term mental health, social-emotional, and academic impacts” the nearly yearlong absence from the classroom was having on Oregon students and families.

“A recent study showed that if schools remain remote, the potential educational loss could be substantial,” Brown said. “This is especially true in mathematics, with students likely to lose five to nine months, on average, of learning by the end of this school year.”

The governor said she has prioritized protecting seniors since the pandemic began, which has resulted in Oregon faring better than most other states in terms of protecting this most vulnerable group.

“Oregon has the second-lowest Covid-19 infection rate among seniors in the country, and the third-lowest death rate among people 65 and older,” she said. “Just this past week, we completed first dose vaccinations for all seniors living in nursing homes who wanted the vaccine.”

Brown had previously announced that both teachers and seniors 65 and older could begin receiving the vaccine on Jan. 23. However, when a federal reserve of vaccination doses that Oregon officials had been counting on turned out to be nonexistent, the state had to change gears.

“I first made the commitment at the end of last year to vaccinate Oregon’s educators and school staff, and I reaffirmed that commitment last week,” Brown said Friday. “Educators can be vaccinated quickly, district by district. This choice represents a rapid action that will have an outsized impact on Oregon kids.

“If we were to vaccinate every Oregon senior first, the harsh reality is that many of our educators would not get vaccinated this school year—and Oregon kids would continue to suffer.”

Starting with teachers pushes the vaccine schedule for seniors out only two weeks, Brown said, though this isn’t exactly true. It is only Oregonians 80 and older who will become eligible for the immunization on Feb. 8, with other senior age groups staggered over the next several more weeks.

“The harsh reality is we are managing a scarce resource right now,” Brown said. “Time and time again, this pandemic has forced difficult choices. And even in tough times, I continue to be inspired by the extraordinary ways Oregonians lift one another up and work together.”

Later in the press conference, Oregon Health Authority Public Health Director Rachael Banks echoed Brown’s sentiments about the plan to vaccinate people who work in childcare, early learning or K-12 school settings starting Jan. 25.

“As long as supplies are scarce, we’ll face really tough calls on who to immunize next,” she said. “There are good reasons to prioritize educators and good reasons to prioritize seniors.”

Banks emphasized that now is the time to start vaccinating educators to give schools a chance at reopening this school year with a vaccinated staff.

The press conference also included testimony supporting the vaccination of educators from South Medford High School student — and member of the governor’s school reopening council — Yosalin Arenas Alvarez, who spoke of her experience as a high school senior.   

“Some of us are frustrated, tired and lack motivation to open up our computers,” she admitted. “Over this past year, I have been astonished to hear some of my peers come to me and say, ‘I just can’t do it anymore. I just can’t.’ I keep telling them, ‘One more year.’ We have one more year. Yet, some days, I think that one year feels longer than all three years of high school combined.”

Arenas said she and her peers understand that going back to school will look different amid the continuing pandemic.

“There will be no rallies, no group huddles, and there will be limited extracurriculars,” she said. “But we will have warm lunches, a desk, shelter and — most importantly — each other.”

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