OHA Director Patrick Allen marks 1 year since first case of COVID-19 in Oregon with Open Letter to Oregon

Open Letter to Oregon

By Patrick Allen, Director of the Oregon Health Authority

It’s been one year since the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in Oregon. Twelve grim months later, nothing is the same. The pandemic has claimed more than half a million lives in the United States. More than 2,200 Oregonians have died with the coronavirus. All of us have felt their loss. All of us have seen our lives altered: a beloved grandparent’s lonely wave through the glass of a nursing home window. The empty storefront of a bedrock local business. Birthdays, graduations and anniversaries awkwardly celebrated on a screen instead of in-person. Frustration as parents struggle to help kids in school while trying to meet work demands.

But there’s another number Oregonians should bear in mind, especially as we confront the coming months of the pandemic: 4,000. That’s approximately the number of lives you’ve saved by wearing a mask, limiting in-person gatherings and maintaining social distance.

Oregon was one of the first states in the nation to report a case of COVID-19, but a year later our state has the 4th lowest coronavirus case rate in the nation, the 4th lowest death rate and the 4th lowest COVID-19 death rate among seniors. If Oregon’s death rate matched the nation’s, three times as many Oregonians would have lost their lives.

You made the difference. Month after month, deep into the pandemic, about 8 in 10 Oregonians continue to observe lifesaving pandemic precautions. While we know who’s died from COVID-19 – in ages ranging from under 1 to more than 100 years old, we’ll never know for sure whom you’ve saved. Maybe it’s an esteemed elder who’s alive to lead a virtual devotional group for his faith community. A middle-age mother who’s here to help her daughter apply for college. A thirtysomething who agrees to be best man at his friend’s wedding, once the pandemic is over. Maybe it’s someone reading this message. Maybe it’s you.

State and local public health actions saved lives too. Governor Kate Brown issued early stay at home orders. Our state was the first in the nation to protect the most vulnerable nursing home residents by limiting visitation. Oregon put limits on bars, restaurants, gyms and other types of businesses that could fuel the virus’ spread. Those limits figured as vital factors in Oregon’s life-saving calculus – but they came with undeniable costs to workers and business owner. Still, and unlike other states, Oregon kept manufacturing and construction going, blunting the worst-case economic fallout on working families.

Here’s another number: 973,022. That’s the number of COVID-19 vaccine first and second doses Oregon nurses and other vaccinators have administered so far, as of today. It’s true Oregon’s vaccine roll-out has been no less bumpy than it has been elsewhere. Yet Oregon has fully vaccinated about 1 in 12 adults, putting us ahead of most other states (Oregon ranks 16th in the percent of people fully vaccinated).

But the pandemic isn’t over. More contagious and more dangerous variants of the virus are taking hold. We are in a race to vaccinate as many people as possible, as soon as we can.

It’s been a hard year. On top of the pandemic, we’ve endured historic wildfires that also claimed lives, displaced thousands and obliterated the homes and businesses that comprised entire communities. We’ve awakened to an overdue reckoning with racial injustice – including unacceptable health inequities. Winter storms compounded our discomfort and disruption.

We’re tired. But we can’t give up.

With gratitude, and respect for all the lifesaving sacrifices you’ve made so far, I ask Oregonians to:

  • Keep wearing masks, limiting your social get-togethers and maintaining your physical distance. Until we know more, we need to keep our guard up.
  • Choose to get vaccinated when you are eligible, as soon as an appointment is available to you.

On Friday, Governor Brown told Oregonians we are speeding up our timelines to vaccinate Oregonians. Over the next month we expect to vaccinate more than 3 in 4 seniors. People with underlying health conditions will be eligible on March 29th. Frontline workers will be eligible no later than May 1. And we’ll open vaccinations to the first healthy members of the general public no later than June 1.

I know many people have questions about COVID-19 vaccines. I know the experience of racism and memories of historical trauma and medical experimentation are alive in many communities. Other people are wary of government.

Yet once again, we depend on each other to save lives. The COVID-19 vaccine is the safest and most effective way to protect yourself and your loved ones and return to more of our normal life. We need enough Oregonians to get immunized, so all of us are protected.

Thank you for the lives you’ve saved so far and the lives we can all save in the months to come.