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Brown anticipates reaching herd immunity in late summer

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Gov. Kate Brown tours Amy's Kitchen in White City on Wednesday.
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Gov. Kate Brown tours the West Bear All-Lands Lomakatsi Restoration Project in Medford on Wednesday.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown expects COVID-19 vaccines to ramp up significantly in the next two weeks, helping return the state to more normal conditions by the end of June.

During a tour Wednesday at Amy’s Kitchen in White City , Brown said she anticipated reaching “herd immunity” by the end of summer when a majority of adults has been vaccinated.

She said three factors will determine how successful the state is at reaching these goals of herd immunity and returning to more normal operations by the end of June.

A majority of Oregon adults need to get vaccinated, supplies of the vaccine need to improve markedly and there needs to be an adequate supply of hospital beds.

Restrictions on restaurants and other businesses should be lessened over the next two months if these goals are attained.

“We should be there no later than the end of June,” she said.

At some point in the near future, Brown said she expects supply of the vaccine could outpace demand. As a result, she anticipates the vaccine should be more widely available at health clinics, drug stores and other locations.

Brown recently placed Jackson County back in the “extreme risk” category because of an uptick in COVID cases, though she expects the restrictions to last one to three weeks.

Because children under age 16 can’t be vaccinated, Brown said the state needs to get some 80% of adults vaccinated to attain herd immunity. Currently about half of Oregon adults have received at least the first dose of the vaccine.

Brown herself received the single-dose Johnson and Johnson shot, which was briefly halted because of concerns about a half-dozen cases of blood clots. Health officials say that despite the concerns over the Johnson and Johnson shot, the negative side effects are relatively few.

Brown said she’s hoping that more education about the benefits of the vaccines and more effort by business to encourage employees to get the shot should help the state attain its immunization goal.

Representatives at Amy’s Kitchen told the governor that an on-site health clinic for 900 employees and their families has been offering the vaccine as well, though there remains some reluctance to getting the shot.

The health clinic, which is provided along with normal health coverage to all employees, also offers one-hour visits to get a better sense of each worker’s health needs.

Amy’s has instituted a number of procedures to minimize the transmission of COVID cases, including greater separation between workers, installation of plastic dividers as well as protective gear.

Amy’s representatives told the governor it would be helpful if they could have a couple of different vaccines available for employees. It currently has only Johnson and Johnson’s.

While Amy’s scaled back production because of COVID, it has begun ramping up again and currently has 100 job openings. One production line was producing 2,000 pizzas an hour.

Andy Berliner, one of the founders of Amy’s, said his company increased its starting wages recently to $15.25 an hour to attract more workers.

Berliner said it has been difficult to expand its production.

“We can’t hire enough workers right now because of immigration issues,” he said.

Brown visited Jackson County to see how much progress the area is making in cleaning up fire-ravaged communities and what efforts are being made to get people vaccinated.

“This region is really challenged because of COVID and the fires,” she said.

On Wednesday afternoon, Brown toured one of the many areas of the county where forest thinning operations are in effect.

In a remote area off Coleman Creek Road far to the west of Medford, she saw first hand the techniques use to improve the conditions on forest lands.

“It is honestly mind blowing,” Brown told crews who had been busy with chain saws and stacking debris. “To implement this kind of work, I know it’s not easy but I know by doing this kind of work together we can create healthier landscapes, we can create really good paying jobs, hopefully we can get a little product for our mills and create safer communities.”

The thinning operation’s intent is to create less forest debris to reduce the intensity of fires and give firefighters a chance to save structures.

She said there is about a million acres that still need to be cleared as part of a 20-year effort to reduce fire danger in Oregon.

One of the big questions is getting enough funding to support this ongoing work as well as better planning to tailor the thinning to the different types of forests throughout the state.

Officials from Lomakatsi Restoration Project, which was managing the thinning operation, told Brown they would need to quadruple their workforce to expand its thinning efforts significantly.

Brown said Jackson County faces some unique challenges to help it return to normal after 2,500 residences were destroyed in the Almeda fire alone on Sept. 8, 2020. Many of those homes housed lower income families.

In her six years as governor, she said the state has put $1 billion toward affordable housing even though Brown said it’s not enough to meet the needs of many Oregonians.

“It’s just a drop in the bucket,” she said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @reporterdm.