Vaccine Prioritization: Oregon Ignores the Experts

Oregon and NW Washington don’t have enough doses of the COVID vaccine to go around. How do we decide who to prioritize in terms of vaccine distribution? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) answered this question last year.

Several months ago, a typically obscure arm of the CDC, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, went about considering vaccine prioritization. The Committee is composed of dozens of nationally renowned experts in medicine, public health, and pharmaceutical sciences, including liaisons at major medical centers. The Committee considered how to prioritize the COVID vaccine based on addressing three overarching principles: Decrease death and serious disease as much as possible, preserve the functioning of society, and reduce burdens on communities already facing disparate treatment.

On the question of addressing existing risks to particular professions and vulnerable communities, they determined that workers of color were overrepresented in some industries that exposed them to increased occupational exposure, including the grocery industry. Their data then goes on to suggest that prioritization of such professions in Phase 1b (directly after healthcare personnel and long-term care facility residents) could prevent between 1-5% of additional infections as opposed to placing those workers further down the line, as well as mitigate health inequities between ethnic groups.

This recommendation was sent to Oregon, where it was flatly ignored.

On January 25, public school teachers began receiving the vaccine thanks to the Governor’s prioritization of them over other groups recommended by the CDC. The Governor leapfrogged them over seniors over 80 years old as well as the front-line customer service workers that the CDC classified as “critical to the continued functioning of society.”

Ostensibly, this move was due to the political popularity of sending children back to school, but notably the teachers did not ask for this special treatment. Elizabeth Theil, president of the Portland Teachers Association, noted to the Willamette Week that educators “would have wanted the vaccine decisions to be made based on public health, not on a timeline to be opening schools.”
The Governor’s politicization of public health policy has severe repercussions to the health and lives of workers as well as their families. By ignoring the CDC’s science-informed recommendations, Oregon has imperiled front-line workers as well as the hundreds of thousands of customers they see on a daily basis. By ignoring groups and professions that disproportionately represent workers of color, Oregon has exacerbated the disparities already faced by these groups being underrepresented in the vaccine rollout.
UFCW Local 555, representing tens of thousands of workers in the grocery industry, has been in contact with the Governor, agency staff, and lawmakers about correcting this gross oversight. As UFCW’s lobbying team makes the case directly to policymakers, the general public will likely soon see a broader communications push about the importance of CDC-recommended front-line vaccinations. It is within the Governor’s power to adhere to the CDC schedule, or not.

Governor Brown should immediately hew to the CDC prioritization recommendations, and address our public health crisis with science, not politics.