Douglas County has one of the lowest per capita vaccination rates in the state.
For total vaccines given, Douglas County was in 12th place among Oregon counties Thursday at 10,890, according to the Oregon Health Authority, though it is the 9th biggest county in the state. Counties with higher total vaccinations included Jackson, Lane, Deschutes, Linn, Benton, Polk, Marion, Yamhill, Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington.
About 9.7% of Douglas County residents have received a vaccine. Only four of Oregon’s 36 counties — Malheur, Morrow, Umatilla and Columbia — have lower per capita rates, according to the Oregon Health Authority’s statistics as of Thursday. Josephine County is just slightly ahead, at 9.74%.
The rest are above 10%. Wheeler, an oddball small county with 30.8% of its total population of 1,438 people vaccinated, leads the pack.
The challenge is that up to this point, the state hasn’t been distributing vaccines based on population, Douglas County Public Health Officer Bob Dannenhoffer said in an interview Wednesday. And that’s meant Douglas County residents have gotten the short end of the stick.
But Dannenhoffer said the situation is about to improve dramatically for Douglas County.
Douglas County has received disproportionately small allotments of vaccine doses from the state primarily because the state favored shipping vaccines to large, well-connected hospital systems in other counties like Peace Health in Lane County and Providence in Portland. Those hospitals could offer mass clinics reaching larger segments of the population, Dannenhoffer said.
Deschutes County’s St. Charles Bend hospital received 17,000 vaccines one weekend, while Douglas County received just 1,000 on the same weekend.
“So St. Charles had a big event and they were able to go through many of the 1a, some of the teachers and some of the seniors at a time when we were just starting on the teachers,” Dannenhoffer said.
CHI Mercy Medical Center is a big fish in Roseburg’s small pond, but its parent nonprofit Catholic Health Initiatives operates a hospital in only one other Oregon city, Pendleton. So it didn’t receive the large distributions from the state that other hospital systems did, he said.
Dannenhoffer said he’s been a “burr in the saddle” of state officials, insisting that Douglas County receive its fair share.
“Every time I call back, they say ‘Bob you’re right, we’re going to fix this,’” he said.
Dannenhoffer said he’s been assured by state officials that the county is about to catch up and begin receiving its fair share of doses, starting this week.
He said the county expected to receive 3,600 doses by the end of the week. That’s a big boost for a program that had as of Wednesday received just 6,500 vaccines.
Over the next few weeks, Douglas County expects to receive 2,500 first doses per week plus between 1,000 and 2,500 second doses. That’s a total of 3,500 to 5,000 doses a week.
For the senior population, the doses will now come in on a per capita basis. Since Douglas County has 3.9% of the state’s senior population, it will receive 3.9% of the state’s available doses for that group plus some extra vaccines to make up for the county having been shorted in the past.
The 10,890 vaccine figure listed by the Oregon Health Authority for Douglas County includes the 6,500 vaccines shipped to Local Public Health, but also another 4,000 sent to Mercy.
Another 3,000 vaccines sent by the federal government directly to the Roseburg VA Medical Center aren’t even included in the health authority statistic. Neither are the unknown and unreported number of vaccines given to nursing home patients and staff through the federal pharmacy program.
Once the state is distributing vaccines more evenly, that still leaves the county with the ongoing federal vaccine shortages.
As was illustrated so clearly last week, when storms across much of the country halted vaccine shipments, it’s the federal government that sends the vaccines to the states in the first place. Oregon can’t ship vaccines to its counties that it doesn’t have.
And even without bad weather, the doses received from the feds have been just a fraction of those needed to meet the demand. That’s not just a problem here, but everywhere.
Dannenhoffer is optimistic that situation is being resolved as well.
“People need to be patient for six or eight weeks. We will definitely get there,” he said.
Once Douglas County receives a new vaccine shipment, Dannenhoffer said it distributes the vaccinations to local vaccinators the following day. The vaccines then are delivered into people’s arms within five days.
There’s no shortage of people who want them.
“Right now, we have far more demand than supply, but we think come summertime we may well have more supply than demand,” he said.
He hopes demand continues to increase, though. Once 65% to 75% of county residents are immune — either because they’ve had the disease or because they’ve had the vaccinations — we will have reached herd immunity. That’s the point at which it’s really hard for the illness to spread.
Despite the vaccine shortages the county has faced, Dannenhoffer said he is grateful to have a vaccine at all just one year into the pandemic. The fact that it is so effective and so safe is also amazing, he said.
“Recognize the bumps in the road of not having enough, weather delays and whatever, is life,” he said.
“That stuff will happen and we’ll get there. And I’m seeing the possibility of a very different September 2021 than we had in September 2020,” he said.