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Q&A: Gov. Brown on vaccinating teachers and seniors, reopening schools

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown spoke with KGW's Pat Dooris about vaccinating teachers, reopening Oregon schools, reaction from the state's seniors and more.

PORTLAND, Ore. — KGW's Pat Dooris sat down with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown for an interview on Friday, Jan. 29. They spoke about vaccinating teachers, reopening Oregon schools, reactions from the state's seniors and more.

Here's a full transcript of the conversation:

Dooris: Thanks for joining us this morning. Really appreciate it. Our first question is about schools and teachers. The Beaverton School District (BSD) has announced it is still considering the feasibility of bringing secondary students back in a hybrid model for middle and high school students returning to in-person classes similar to Portland and Salem. The BSD middle and high schools are scheduled to return to limited in-person instruction on Feb. 22 and will implement "BSD Connect" on April 19, according to the district. BSD said all options are still on the table and has not ruled out middle and high school students returning for in-person hybrid instruction. The district hopes they still will be able to offer that option for kids, parents and teachers this year. So vaccinating teachers didn't seem to sway them to open schools. Decisions like that run counter to your goals of putting teachers ahead of seniors. Does that show your plan's not working?

RELATED: Beaverton School District releases timeline for return to in-person instruction

Brown: I am absolutely committed to using every tool that we have in the toolbox to get our students back into the classroom safely. And I am absolutely committed to making this happen. Our students are really suffering from not being in the classrooms. Many of our students haven't seen a classroom, the inside of a classroom, since last March. So we're doing everything we can. As you know, Oregon has the most rigorous guidelines to ensure that our students and educator workforce and staff can be safe. The CDC has said that the risk of transmission is low as long as safety protocol is being followed. So I'm talking with superintendents, I'm talking with educators, I'm talking with parents, we're doing everything we can to get our students back into the classroom. Our students need the social and emotional support that in-person learning provides. Many of our students struggle with comprehensive distance learning and of course, many of our students need the basics: a healthy breakfast and a healthy lunch and a safe, warm place to study. And the classrooms provide that. So we're doing everything we can to make this happen.

Dooris: But it must be frustrating to be doing everything you can and then have districts like this say, "We're not bringing the kids back."

Brown: Oregon, as you know is a local control state. We have 197 school districts and each one of these districts is different. It is my expectation, and I've been very clear with teachers, I've been very clear with superintendents and parents as well, that we have thrown every single tool that we have at the problem, including making sure that we have access to testing, making sure that schools have additional resources. As you know, the federal government passed, the Congress passed an additional package. So we have nearly $500 million coming to our schools to help ensure that they have the resources to purchase safety equipment and keep their staff and their students safe. So we're doing everything we can to make this happen.

Dooris: Some lawmakers — the legislature are now meeting — have called on you to change the priority, to allow only districts that are committed to getting schools open before the end of the year, to only give those teachers shots. What do you think of that plan?

Brown: We've worked through a number of our educator workforce and communities around the state and we're starting vaccines for seniors in 10 days. We're working very hard with a very limited resource. These are very, very challenging decisions. I will tell you that governors across the entire United States are struggling with these difficult choices. We simply do not have enough vaccines. And I know that's frustrating and really hard for Oregonians to hear. We're doing the best we can with the vaccines we have. The good news is Oregon's infection rates for COVID still remain some of the lowest in the country. The information I have is that today we have the fourth-lowest infection rate of COVID-19 in the country. We have the second-lowest infection rate for our seniors over the age of 65. And I heard this week as well that we are the 16th state in terms of the numbers of vaccines that we've given out per population. So we are definitely the little engine that could, we're doing this as quickly and efficiently as we can.

Dooris: So it sounds like you're not open to changing your plan?

Brown: We are moving forward with the plans we have in place. And I have to tell you, this is really an all-hands-on-deck moment. We have our National Guard men and women helping us out. We have folks from the private sector. I've had conversations with Columbia Sportswear and Intel and Nike. And our health systems are also stepping up in ways that are unusual to address the urgent need of getting vaccines in arms.

Dooris: You mentioned seniors a little bit ago. There is significant anger, as you know, in the senior population over the decision to put them behind teachers. We've gotten lots and lots of emails. One, a 70-year-old man called the decision "unacceptable." Another wrote, "It's pretty dark here under the bus." We're one of few states that have put teachers in front of seniors. Do you regret that decision?

Brown: We have put our most vulnerable seniors, those in nursing homes and assisted living, at the very top of the list. We have gone through and vaccinated every senior who's wanted a vaccine that lives in assisted living, that lives in congregate care and in skilled nursing. We're going to go back and do their second doses over the next couple of weeks. And then you will recall at the beginning of the pandemic, I was one of the first governors in the entire country to lock down our assisted living facilities in our nursing homes because I wanted to protect these most vulnerable seniors. And the good news is Oregon is faring much better than most of the states in terms of both our infection and our mortality rates, thanks in large part to the tough decisions and the incredible sacrifices that Oregonians have made. But we also need to take action to help the thousands of Oregon kids that haven't seen the inside of a classroom in nearly a year. Ask any parent or any grandparent or great aunt or great uncle, distance learning is taking a real toll on our kids. Our kids are suffering from anxiety and depression. They need to see the inside of a classroom before the school year gets out. And that's what I'm committed to making happen.

RELATED: Oregon vaccine committee to send final priority recommendations to Gov. Brown

Dooris: Moving on to the vaccine advisory committee yesterday, they recommended a wide range of people be prioritized: those with pre-existing conditions, frontline workers, people in custody, people in congregate housing. Will you follow that recommendation?

Brown: Yes. Most of those folks are already in the 1b population. Again, here's the reality: we are receiving a little more than 50,000 first doses a week. We know that the senior population, those over the age of 65, is roughly between 600,000 and 750,000 people. At roughly 50,000 vaccines a week, that's going to take somewhere between 12 and 16 weeks. We also know it's incredibly urgent to protect our frontline workers, including teachers, including folks that are picking our fruits and vegetables and making sure that product gets to market. Obviously, spring is coming. We want to make sure that our agricultural or farmworkers have access to the vaccine so they can continue to work, continue to provide the food that we need on our tables. We have other folks that are also frontline workers. Folks have continued to use public transit, our bus drivers continue to work. We need to make sure that all of these folks get vaccinated. Again, the harsh reality is unfortunately we do not have enough vaccine. I'm glad to see so many Oregonians want to get vaccinated. That's a really good thing. Again, we're working, this is all hands on deck. We're working with everybody to get everyone vaccinated as quickly as possible, particularly that large population that's in 1b.

Dooris: Any idea when people like grocery store workers would actually get their vaccinations?

Brown: Obviously, our next focus is on making sure we get our seniors vaccinated. On Feb. 8, we're going to be starting to vaccinate seniors over the age of 80. This is roughly 160,000, might be 170,000 people. It's going to take us a couple of weeks to do that population, at least. And then we will move on to seniors over the age of 65. Again, this is a very large population. So once we get through that, we'll be working with the Oregon Health Authority, and frankly, relying on the recommendations of the vaccine advisory committee. Underneath all of this, we're really focused on equity, making sure that our most vulnerable communities are getting the vaccines that they need. And one of the issues we know is in the Portland metropolitan area, we have a lot of healthcare workers that still are not vaccinated. And Pat, let me tell you who these healthcare workers are. They're home health care workers who are taking care of very vulnerable seniors or people with disabilities. They need to get vaccinated and their clients need to get vaccinated. We have a lot of seniors living in adult foster care homes. We have to get both the staff that care for these vulnerable seniors, as well as those seniors, vaccinated as well. So we're working hard to make sure the metropolitan area has the vaccines that need to cover these very vulnerable populations.

Dooris: I know that you're doing a number of interviews and we don't have a lot of time. So I'll make this my last question. We've also heard from a lot of seniors who are critical of the OHA and the way they're changing the death information, no longer listing specific people and dates of when they got infected and when they died. And a lot of the seniors think that it's an attempt to cover up how many seniors are dying from this. What's your reaction to that, please?

Brown: First of all, that's absolutely not the case. When I learned of the Oregon Health Authority's decision, I directed them to continue to provide both the death counts and the age brackets on a daily basis. We're actually, I believe, the only state in the country that is providing this level of information. And then moving forward, they will provide more detailed information on a weekly basis. Honestly, they were struggling with making sure they had adequate staff to get this detailed information out. I told them that I will make sure they have the staffing resources to make this happen. I'm committed to transparency and making sure that the public and frankly, the media, has this information. It's really, really important for all of us to have.

Dooris: OK. Well, thanks, Gov. Brown, for your time. We look forward to talking to you again in the near future about this.

Brown: Thank you so much. Please stay safe.

WATCH: One-on-one with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown

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