A group of Oregonians responsible for recommending who should be next in line for coronavirus inoculations spent much of its first substantive meeting Thursday getting their bearings on the fundamentals of the state’s immunization program and outlining how health systems have disadvantaged minorities.
The 27-member Vaccine Advisory Committee is charged with advising the Oregon Health Authority on who should get shots of the coronavirus vaccine once health care workers and senior care residents and staff have been vaccinated, with a particular focus on ensuring historically marginalized groups get shots.
“Systems are created in a way that they totally disconnect from the reality of working with people,” said committee member Marin Arreola, principal of a group that helps non-English speakers get access to health care. “And for me, it’s really important that we deal with that trauma and making people feel not discounted but valued.”
The Oregon Health Authority convened the group as part of its goal of “addressing structural racism and other forms of systemic oppression” to ensure marginalized and hard-hit communities are able to access the vaccine.
Members of those communities, including Latinos, Pacific Islanders, Blacks, and people with disabilities, took turns Thursday voicing doubts their respective groups have about the health care system, including the reluctance among some to be vaccinated.
“This community doesn’t have trust in any system that comes from any form of government,” said Musse Olol, president of the Somali American Council of Oregon. “And that’s the very reason I joined this group.”
The committee’s three-hour meeting did not result in any decisions for the appropriate vaccination order. One proposed vote, whether the group should endorse the efficacy of coronavirus vaccines, was tabled until the next meeting so the members could learn more.
Oregon must still vaccinate all 360,000 or so health care workers and senior care residents and staff who are first in line for a shot. About 65,000 Oregonians have received at least one shot of the coronavirus vaccine so far, state data show.
At the governor’s request, the state’s approximately 75,000 educators will most likely be next, as well as prison inmates, who will be vaccinated to stave off a prisoner lawsuit, the Oregon Health Authority’s public health director said.
“Just wanted to be really upfront and clear about those decision points that have been made,” Rachael Banks said, tempering the committee’s expectations about the scope of its influence.
The advisory committee has no power to order certain health authority decisions, but will advise the agency on who should get vaccinated after the state’s priority groups.
The committee is expected to meet at least once a week for the next five weeks before it issues recommendations.
Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, said his agency would follow the committee’s recommendations.
“We’re going to go with your answers because you represent the communities most directly impacted by the coronavirus,” Allen said during the meeting.
Allen’s agency created the committee to help ensure some of the groups most in need are not overlooked for early access to the vaccine. Black Oregonians, for example, have had more than twice as many cases per 100,000 people as whites, according to the Oregon Health Authority, and Hispanics have had four times as many cases per 100,000 as non-Hispanics.
The group appeared to face something of a learning curve.
Zhenya Abbruzzese, a committee member representing Oregon’s Slavic community, wanted to establish that everyone was in favor of the coronavirus vaccine, asking if the members were “willing to put our credibility behind and promote it to our communities.”
At least one member said she didn’t know enough about the vaccine, and the committee tabled a vote on the question until its members have the opportunity to learn more.
The committee will meet again Jan. 14.
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