Jan. 23, 2021 — On Jan. 21, Lane County hosted a virtual town hall about the progress of vaccinations in the county after getting approval five weeks ago. In attendance were representatives from the county’s two largest medical centers, PeaceHealth and McKenzie-Willamette; a first-response agency; the University of Oregon (U of O); Lane County Public Health (LCPH); and Oregon Medical Group (OMG).
“The purpose for tonight is to create clarity, encourage transparency and empower our community through information,” said moderator Jason Davis, LCPH public information officer. “We want to essentially share with you everything that we know.”
He added that the community submitted hundreds of questions about the two FDA-approved vaccines, the disbursement process, timelines and priority.
“We appreciate how concerned are communities and the level of detail that they are requesting in some of those questions,” Davis said.
The information from the town hall is included on www.lanecounty.org/coronavirus.
As of Jan. 22, some 218,413 people in Oregon have received one or both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. This includes the two vaccines manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Inc.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the COVID-19 vaccine contains material from the virus that gives a person’s cells instructions for how to make a harmless protein that is unique to the virus.
“After our cells make copies of the protein, they destroy the genetic material from the vaccine. Our bodies recognize that the protein should not be there and build T-lymphocytes and B-lymphocytes that will remember how to fight the virus that causes COVID-19 if we are infected in the future,” the CDC stated.
In addition, the FDA emphasized, the “COVID-19 vaccine does not contain SARS-CoV-2 and cannot give you COVID-19.”
Both vaccines were approved at the end of 2020 and reached Oregon on Dec. 14.
In the state, the vaccines are being distributed in a phased approach starting with healthcare workers. Approximately 400,000 people are in this category, and Lane County is still vaccinating people in Phase 1A.
During the town hall, Lane County Senior Public Health Officer Patrick Luedtke, MD, MPH, talked about both the vaccine approval process and the roll out of vaccines in the county.
“The first vaccine trial started in February in the U.S., which is really remarkable. At the outset, it's really important to know what an incredible achievement that is,” he said. “I've been in the medical space for 30 some years, and I can tell you that we waited literally a few decades for some vaccines that we are using today, and the whooping cough vaccine is one of them.”
He said the quick response in creating early trials of the vaccine in the same calendar year the virus arrived in the U.S. was an amazing feat, especially as, by the end of the year, two of the vaccines were effective.
He added that other vaccines are further along in their trials, but not yet ready for the public.
“At this time, we just wish we had more vaccines in the pipeline,” Luedtke said.
This led into a description of the phased approach for vaccinating people and the most ethical way to go about doing that.
Luedtke spoke about health equity and making sure everyone has access to health care, insurance and access.
“We try to promote justice. We want to make sure that this is fair across all population groups,” he said. “We have in some sense an ethical responsibility to make sure that we use it as efficiently and effectively as possible.”
Until the supply increases, the vaccine disbursement will feel slow for the community. As of Dec. 22, approximately 14,814 people in Lane County have received one or both doses of the vaccine. All of them are still in Phase 1A — with four subgroups under Phase 1.
Part of the reason there are so many people in Phase 1A is that the county has a large medical infrastructure, with five hospitals and many clinics and urgent care centers.
“What that means is we have a lot of people who are in phase 1A who would need to be vaccinated before we're going to get to the rest of you. So, just keep that in mind as we go forward,” Luedtke said.
Following this, each of the speakers at the town hall got a chance to talk about their organization.
Davis spoke next about LCPH and its vaccine planning process, which it began in 2009.
“A realization in COVID is we can absolutely not do this ourselves. This is not a job for LCPH. This is a job for U of O, PeaceHealth, McKenzie-Willamette, OMG, our EMS population and our entire community,” he said. “And that has been true throughout the pandemic — that everybody has played a role and we all need to be working in concert together, rowing in the same direction.”
He said the representatives attending the town hall have been important partners throughout the pandemic and on creating a unified health message.
Davis also talked about when Lane County received its first doses of the vaccine, a little later than planned, on Dec. 22.
“Even though our doses that have been coming into Lane County have been somewhat minimal, I think we've made good use of them,” he said.
The county’s Phase 1A population is approximately 40,000 people. There are still a lot more to get vaccinated.
“We have a lot of people that are doing the good work of keeping our county and other counties healthy and safe. And so that puts us at a unique position in the vaccine distribution process,” Davis said. “While you might see other counties across Oregon vaccinating different populations, part of the reason that we are vaccinating the rate we are is by virtue of the number of people that are in that group.”
Next, James McGovern, MD, Interim Chief Medical Officer for PeaceHealth, spoke about the medical group’s COVID-19 effort.
He specifically talked about the incident command PeaceHealth started at the beginning of the pandemic.
“We spent a lot of time in the beginning of this developing plans to make sure that both our staff and our patients were safe. And we were able to take care of as many COVID patients as we possibly could,” McGovern said.
While the county is in what is called “surge protocol,” its hospitals haven’t been overrun, due in part to the community’s preparedness and the beginning of healthcare worker vaccinations.
McGovern paused at this point to thank county residents for their efforts thus far in the pandemic.
“Our ability to maintain all of our services and to take care of all our patients … is really a tribute to the community. All of you who have worn masks, socially distanced at your gatherings, sacrificed your time with family over the holidays — the result of that is the two hospital systems in town have not been overwhelmed,” he said.
In the PeaceHealth system, vaccinations went first to COVID units, then intensive care and emergency departments and out beyond there.
“The decision was made to continue to vaccinate beyond direct care, so that we can keep vital functions going,” McGovern said.
However, he acknowledged how important the vaccine is to getting the community protected against COVID-19.
“This is a very precious resource. We have not wasted one dose. We're very careful about how we tab vials and how we manage the end of our clinics to make sure that every last dose goes into an arm by the end of the day,” McGovern said.
He concluded, “The vaccines belong in arms, not freezers. And I think that's all of our commitment, everybody on this town hall tonight.”
Then, McKenzie-Willamette Chief Medical Officer Jessica Versage, M.D., spoke about her hospital system.
“We have been very fortunate in our county to have manageable COVID levels, where the hospitals and the clinics had capacity because of all the efforts of the people in our community, and all of us working together,” she said.
McKenzie-Willamette took steps at the beginning of the pandemic to partner with U of O to increase local COVID testing.
“We have run over 71,000 COVID tests. This has been a huge support for our community because it allows earlier diagnosis, and those patients can then get care sooner. It also helps with contact tracing, and most importantly it allows those patients to quarantine earlier and not increase the spread of the virus,” Versage said.
The hospital system is working on an education campaign to inform people on news about COVID and the available vaccines.
“This vaccine has been very well studied and it's very safe to receive,” she said. “I would really like everyone to know it's very important not only to our hospital, but all of the healthcare entities in the community, to support community vaccination, as efficiently and quickly as we can.”
Afterward, JoAnna Kamppi, EMS Chief of the Eugene-Springfield Fire Department, talked about the emergency response aspect of the pandemic and how first responders have been able to get vaccinated as part of Phase 1A.
Eugene-Springfield Fire coordinated with the Oregon Alert System to receive vaccinations. Beyond that, it facilitated vaccinations for the 64 other emergency response groups in Lane County.
“For most agencies, if they didn't have 100 people, they couldn't receive vaccination in that first go around. With that in mind, we took our smaller agencies under our wing and made sure that vaccine was going to be available to all first response agencies in Lane County,” Kamppi said.
That meant 1,200 first doses of the Moderna vaccine went to fire, EMS and law enforcement first responders in Lane County. They will receive their second dose next week.
Kamppi also gave information on a “strike team model” of first responders who will be able to administer vaccines throughout the county.
Following this, Krista Dillon, U of O Director of Operations, Safety and Risk Services, spoke about the university’s efforts to protect not only its students and faculty but the surrounding community.
The U of O is providing free community COVID-19 tests to county residents through a program which has the capacity to test 4,000 people per week. The university has seen a steady stream of COVID-19 cases since June. As of Jan. 22, there have been 719 on-campus students, 236 off-campus students and 20 faculty members who have contracted the virus.
“We're also doing our part to educate our campus community members, students, faculty and staff about the importance of mask wearing and physical distancing. We will continue to do so even as the vaccine becomes available within our community,” Dillon said.
The U of O has partnered with health groups to offer drive-through testing clinics and is willing to offer additional locations to administer vaccines.
“In addition, we've also offered our assistance to help coordinate the education sector for vaccination administration,” Dillon said. “That will include the K through 12 and early learning, as well as the higher education efforts when those vaccines become available for those groups.”
The final speaker was Stacy Chance, MD, the chief medical officer for OMG, who said it’s an “exciting time” to be working on vaccination plans.
All the agencies involved in the meeting talked about how their plans have shifted as more information has been available from the CDC, FDA, Oregon Health Authority and other agencies.
“The information and plans are changing rapidly as we're responding to the disease and the availability of vaccine,” Chance said. “Our organizations, doctors, caregivers and leaders all recognize how essential it is to get as many vaccines to as many people as safely as possible. It's important.”
He expressed that only the availability of the vaccine is holding them back from vaccinating more of Lane County and the state.
In fact, on Jan. 15, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown expressed disappointment that the nation’s states would not be receiving increased shipments of vaccines, since there was no federal reserve of doses.
“Oregon’s seniors, teachers and all of us were depending on the promise of Oregon’s share of the federal reserve of vaccines being released to us," Brown said in a statement.
For Chance, however, the steady roll out of vaccines has been positive.
“This is really going to be an effort that requires of us — all the organizations and the entire community. I'm really happy to be part of it, and happy to have all the partners that we do have in the community. OMG really feels privileged to play a role in helping end this pandemic with vaccinations over the next several weeks and months,” he said.
The town hall concluded with a question-and-answer segment, which Davis said would be used to expand the frequently asked questions page on LCPH’s website.
The participants were able to give insight onto several of these questions, including on virus mutation, susceptible populations, further queries on vaccination timeline and more before they each got to say one more thing to the community.
Luedtke talked about the rate of infection in the community.
“We are getting 1,000 confirmed COVID cases every 13 days in Lane County, and we have been averaging 1,000 every 13 days since Nov. 11,” he said. “This is the peak of cases, and it is a place that we really don't want to be. We need to continue to be safe and healthy for several more months until we move into more immunity from infections and the vaccine and the weather gets better. So please keep that in mind.”
McGovern added that people will be wearing masks for the for the foreseeable future.
“I do agree we can't get complacent now,” he said. “We have to continue to do the things that have kept us healthy as a community.”
Versage said, “We know it's been a year of COVID, and everyone is exhausted. But please hang in there with us right now with this more infectious strain in our backyard. It’s extra important for us to all hang in there, continue to mask, continue to social distance, continue to wash your hands, and continue to protect our community until we can get everyone vaccinated that we need to.”
Each speaker reiterated their commitment to vaccinating the community in a safe and timely manner as vaccines are available, with several speakers talking about the strength of the public health partnerships they have generated during the pandemic.
“We're working together to make sure that we are all working in the same direction with the same knowledge to ensure that we can get vaccines out as quickly as we can,” McGovern said. “We believe the sum is greater than the parts, that we can do a better job faster if we're all connected and working together than if we all stay independent.”
People can access the recording of the town hall meeting at www.lanecounty.org/coronavirus.
For information about vaccines, go to www.covidvaccine.oregon.gov, www.fda.gov/emergency-preparedness-and-response/coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19/covid-19-vaccines and www.cdc.gov/vaccines/covid-19/index.html.