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COVID-19 vaccine on horizon for most vulnerable

The state’s head epidemiologist said health care workers and the most vulnerable Oregonians could start getting COVID-19 vaccinations before the year ends, and he urged all residents to stay strong and follow safety precautions.

“We know we’re going to have to live with this through the winter,” said Dr. Dean Sidelinger.

Sidelinger met with Jackson County commissioners via videoconference Thursday to offer updates and hear concerns about the impact of safety restrictions on local businesses and schools.

He said a vaccine by Pfizer that is reportedly more than 90% effective in testing so far appears close to winning approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Other companies are also working on vaccines.

Sidelinger said health care workers, emergency responders and vulnerable people living in nursing homes could be among those who start getting vaccinations this year, with increasing availability in the first quarter of 2021.

During the first and second quarters of 2021, a broader cross-section of the population could get vaccinated, including communities of color who have had higher complication and death rates from COVID-19, he said.

Sidelinger said he expects vaccination to be voluntary, not mandatory.

With vaccines on the horizon, he urged people to continue wearing masks, practice social distancing and wash their hands. Getting a flu shot can reduce the chances of falling ill with the flu, and reduce the strain on hospitals.

“The actions you take protect not only yourself, but those around you,” he said.

Sidelinger said everyone needs to do their part to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Hospitals need to have the capacity to care for seriously ill COVID-19 patients, along with people who suffer heart attacks and car crashes.

“We want to make sure everyone has access to quality care,” he said.

Sidelinger said Oregon, including Jackson County, is continuing to see COVID-19 cases tied to social gatherings. Some people at low risk of serious complications and death aren’t heeding safety precautions and are spreading it to high-risk relatives, friends and co-workers.

Healthy adults and kids can also suffer unexpected complications, he said.

Sidelinger said Oregon plans to roll out an advertising and messaging campaign to try and reach people who aren’t following safety precautions.

As a bright spot, he said Oregon isn’t seeing COVID-19 spreading at a large scale in schools, although there have been scattered infections. Gov. Kate Brown recently eased restrictions that blocked most students in the state from going to school in person.

Jackson County’s COVID-19 cases have been too high for students to return to school, and cases are spiking.

On Thursday, Jackson County reported 123 new cases and two more deaths, shattering a previous record of 84 cases set Nov. 6.

Commissioner Rick Dyer, who has a teenage son and has been a long-time coach of youth sports, questioned the state regulations that have blocked in-person school in Jackson County.

Dyer said students are able to go to school safely if proper safety measures are followed. The lack of in-person school is hurting students’ educations and harming their mental, physical and social health, he said.

“They are suffering. They’re slipping through the cracks,” Dyer said.

He said young people are much less likely to gather unsafely in each other’s homes when they can take part in sports and other extracurricular activities under adult supervision.

Sidelinger, a pediatrician, said the impact of the COVID-19 safety restrictions on students weighs heavily on him. He said he would like more schools to be open, but some people don’t feel safe there and case counts are rising in many counties.

“It’s not happening nearly fast enough for me, the governor or, frankly, for you,” Sidelinger said to commissioners about school reopenings.

Dyer said the state’s restrictions are targeting schools and businesses such as restaurants at a time when many COVID-19 cases are tied to social gatherings. He said many businesses have been devastated by the state rules this year.

Sidelinger said Oregon is still seeing virus transmission in bars and restaurants.

“Unfortunately when we’re eating and drinking, we have to take off our masks,” he said.

Starting Wednesday, Jackson County and several other counties with high COVID-19 case counts entered a two-week, state-mandated “pause” on activities that include lower limits on the number of people allowed inside restaurants, gyms and other businesses.

The governor is urging people to limit social gatherings to six people.

With cases surging, Jackson County contact tracers are overwhelmed and can’t contact everyone who may have been exposed to the virus.

Sidelinger said other counties have also fallen behind. The state issued new contact tracing guidelines this week that ease how thorough the efforts need to be.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.