The great vaccine divide of 2021 is finally coming home to roost in Oregon.
Under plans announced May 11 by Gov. Kate Brown, counties where higher percentages of adults are willing to get their COVID-19 vaccines will get to significantly relax on pandemic-era restrictions weeks before those where vaccination rates are lagging.
The entire state will see a rollback of certain restrictions—including capacity limits on events, businesses and restaurants—when we hit 70 percent of all Oregonians ages 16 and older getting vaccinated, but that mark isn’t likely until mid-to-late June, officials from the Oregon Health Authority said on Tuesday.
But in vaccine-eager regions where 65 percent of adults are already vaccinated—Hood River and Benton Counties, that’s you, with Multnomah, Washington, Deschutes and Lincoln Counties not too far behind—restrictions could be lowered as soon as next week. That means reduced-capacity graduations, among other ceremonies, can proceed, Brown said.
All of those counties are Democratic-leaning, consistent with national trends that have found that Democrats are generally more eager than Republicans to get vaccinated. Counties farthest from the 65 percent threshold pinpointed by the governor include Malheur, Lake and Umatilla Counties, all Republican strongholds in eastern Oregon. Vaccination rates there hover at around half of those in the metro area.
Still, it’s the first sign that Oregon is moving toward incentivizing vaccines as a way of coaxing those who are suspicious or hesitant about getting their shots. Examples of this approach are popping around the country with increasing frequency, from government efforts like the Republican governor of West Virginia offering a $100 savings bond to all young adults who get the vaccine to the Seattle Mariners offering vaccinated fans the chance to sit shoulder to shoulder with friends at a game, while the unvaccinated must be spaced out.
So far in Oregon, there have been only sporadic efforts to incentivize vaccines, though major public and private universities—including the University of Oregon, Oregon State, Portland State, Reed College and Willamette University—have announced that students will have to be vaccinated in order to start school again in the fall.
Tuesday’s announcement marks a big shift, amid a sense that the pandemic is at last waning in Oregon. But it’s not over yet, and Brown and public health officials alike would not pin down a metric when they will consider it safe to do away with masking requirements and distancing guidelines, saying instead that they will rely on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. And they say even that 70 percent goal won’t be enough to reach herd immunity in Oregon, though adding in the so-called natural immunity among residents who’ve already had Covid and survived should help curb transmission in the short term.
Brown’s announcement won’t change anything for Oregon public schools this school year—they’ll still have to abide by the state’s Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidelines, which include masking requirements inside the classroom and on the playground, and at least three feet of distance between students. In Portland, Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero has said that if the distancing requirements remain in place next fall, it throws the ability to reopen full time, five days a week into question, because classrooms won’t be big enough to accommodate all students.
Still, Brown’s tone on Tuesday was valedictory: “This brings us to a pivotal moment we have all been waiting for,” she said. “We can begin taking steps forward and into the next chapter of post-pandemic life.”