Some Seniors Snag COVID-19 Vaccine Appointments But Slots Quickly Snatched Up

Vaccine covid Pfizer box Fritz Liedtke OHSU .jpg

A health care worker unpacks the Pfizer vaccine at Oregon Health & Science University.

Oregon joined the rest of the country on Monday, becoming the last state in the union to open up COVID-19 vaccinations to seniors living in the community.

Some seniors got up at the crack of dawn to book. Others hopped onto their computers later in the morning. Some snagged a precious appointment. Many did not.

By about noon in the Portland area, all of the slots for the week through Feb. 16 at the Oregon Convention Center and Oregon Health & Science University’s clinic at PDX International were booked.

Still, there were success stories following an increased allocation of doses to the state. In recent weeks, Oregon doled out an average of more than 50,000 doses a week, according to the Oregon Health Authority. This week it expects to divide more than 84,000 doses among sites around the state. Most of them are run by hospitals or public health departments, with some doses going to tribal communities, prisons, a few pharmacies and private clinics like Zoom Care in the Portland area and Nova Health on the coast and in southern Oregon.

The doses will be divided among people in the 1a group who have been eligible from the start along with educators and child care staff and seniors. Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen told lawmakers in a 40-minute closed-door briefing on Monday that about there are about 130,000 people aged 80 and over outside long-term care facilities who've not been vaccinated. But the state only has about 20,000 doses for them this week. 

The single highest share of the total statewide allocations -- about 20%  -- is earmarked for the Portland area’s mass vaccination sites PDX and the Oregon Convention Center, run by Legacy Health, Providence Health & Services, OHSU and Kaiser Permanente.

Margaret Neal, former director of the Institute on Aging at Portland State University, managed on Monday to book an appointment for herself, 68, and her husband, 72, at the Oregon Convention Center. He has Parkinson’s disease and she is his caregiver, making them eligible under the 1a category. But she only recently discovered that they qualified.

Last week, she tried on two days to book appointments. She succeeded through Kaiser Permanente, their insurer and health care provider, to snag an appointment for herself in Eugene, about two hours from their home in Clackamas County. But she couldn’t get one for her husband. The next day, she tried the Oregon Health Authority’s vaccination tool.

The app is not intuitive. But Neal’s no dummy. She has a PhD in urban studies and planning, served as director of the Institute on Aging at Portland State University for 16 years, is past president and current board member of the Oregon Gerontological Association and taught data analysis and gerontological classes at PSU for 30 years.

After several hours of trying to sign up, she gave up. When The Lund Report talked with her on Friday, she said she was “horrified and frustrated” by the process.

Nevertheless, she tried again on Monday and after a few hours managed to book appointments for herself and her husband at the Oregon Convention Center.

It was like winning the lottery.

“I was very emotional when I finished,” Neal said. “The more times you do it the more familiar you are with it.”

Not everyone was so lucky.

“I’m still getting angry emails,” Joyce DeMonnin, spokeswoman for AARP Oregon, said Monday afternoon.

Many seniors have been angry that Gov. Kate Brown put about 150,000 educators and child care workers ahead of the state’s nearly 670,000 seniors. California and Washington state opened up vaccinations to those 65 and older in January. Nevada vaccinated its first seniors last month, starting with those 70 and older. Idaho opened up vaccinations to those 65 and older on Feb. 1.

But with a shortage of doses, the rollouts have been bumpy everywhere.

One big complaint in Oregon has been a lack of clear communication. Instead of setting up a dedicated call center, state officials are using 1-866-698-6155 or 211, forcing people to wait for hours or receive no help at all. The state added 30 National Guard soldiers to the call center’s staff this week but by mid-afternoon on Monday, a recording told callers to try again on Tuesday.

If an operator answers, they can help determine eligibility and walk residents through the online tool. But they don’t make appointments. 

Across the state, vaccine distribution is organized by county. This webpage has links to vaccination sites and phone numbers by county. Residents in the Portland area must use the online tool to determine eligibility. The tool then sends users to a Legacy Health page, which many find confusing.

“You have to create a user ID and password and cycle back through the state’s site and try to get an appointment,” said Dick Lycan, senior research associate for PSU’s Institute on Aging. “It's a little obtuse.”

(See related story: State Offers Various Ways To Sign Up For A Vaccine.)

Maureen Phillips, an 81-year-old Portland resident, reserved an appointment by calling the Oregon Convention Center line -- 971-268-5550 -- on Sunday and Monday. She got a call back on Monday.

“We feel as though it was an achievement to get this done,” Phillips said. 

The convention center is a good option for seniors in the Portland area who are tech savvy and mobile. But Mary Rita Hurley, chair of the Governor’s Commission for Senior Services, worries about people with walkers or those who use wheelchairs.

“It’s well and good that you have a site, but is it accessible?” Hurley asked.

OHSU’s clinic at the PDX red economy parking lot is drive-through -- but it has fewer doses than the convention center. To get an appointment, seniors must use the state’s vaccine tool or book directly with OHSU.

Patrick Allen, the Oregon Health Authority director, has repeatedly urged people to be patient while also repeatedly warning them to expect chaos, something Lycan said was discouraging.

"Being told to expect chaos wasn’t helpful," Lycan said.

But Allen is likely to persist. He told lawmakers in the briefing on Monday: “I’ve been warned against using chaos. But I’ll use chaos because there’s a lot more people who want to get vaccinated than there is vaccine right now.”

The Biden administration announced plans last week to use retail pharmacies to vaccinate people starting Feb. 11. In Oregon, Costco, Health Mart and Albertson’s or Safeway will administer doses, but it’s unclear how people will find out where to go and when.

The demand for vaccines will increase in the weeks ahead. Next week, Oregonians aged 75-79 become eligible. The week after that vaccines will be open to residents aged 70-74, and on March 1 those 65-69 will be eligible. All together, there are nearly 770,000 people in Oregon aged 65 and above though 105,000 have already been vaccinated as part of the 1a category.

“It's going to take some time to get through the big crush of everybody trying to get in all at the same time," Allen told lawmakers. But by late March or early April the state expects to have vaccinated at least three-quarter of seniors, he said.

"There's not a quesion of if," Allen said. "It's a little bit of a question of when."

On Friday, he said the state might open up vaccines in April to essential workers and those with underlying health conditions, who were recommended by the temporary Vaccine Advisory Committee to come next. He said the general public is likely to not be able to get a vaccine until July.

Hurley said the state needs to be a better communicator. The problem from the start was that the state lacked a plan that it could pull off the shelf, critics said.

“We knew last summer that we would have vaccines,” said a top health official who requested anonymity for fear of repercussions. “We just didn’t know when we’d get them or how many.”

The official cited a “lack of urgency” among state health officials.

“It’s sad to watch the state say the issue is we don’t have enough vaccine,” the source said. “It all comes down to we were not prepared and we should have been.”

Ben Botkin contributed to this story.

You can reach Lynne Terry at [email protected] or on Twitter @LynnePDX.


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In my opinion:
As a 73 y.o.senior married to a 80+ y.o. senior, I am embarrassed and saddened by what I hear many of my friends, neighbors and other "white privileged" Oregonians saying--how "frustrated" they are, not being able to get the Covid vaccine as quickly as they believe they are entitled.  Sure sounds like, "I want MY VACCINATION NOW--I'm in the senior priority group (baby boomer) and I am used to getting what I want, when I want!"

I realize this reaction may be based on fear, but I remind all of us--Oregon seniors have one of the  LOWEST rates of Covid-19 illness and death in the NATION!  Doing what we have been doing--Staying in our single family homes, condominiums, and apartments; Isolating, masking, washing our hands frequently, and at a safe distance getting outdoor exercise when the weather permits hasn't always been easy.  I agree that not being able to hug our grandchildren and others isn't what we want to be doing--but IT IS WORKING!   

Nearly 60% of the 2,000 Covid deaths in Oregon have been connected to "congregate living," e.g. Skilled Nursing Facilities, Rehabilitation Facilities,  Assisted Living, Memory Care, Adult Foster Homes, jails and prisons--NOT where "we privileged folks" live!  And most of us are retired, not required to work outside our homes.

In fact, many of us are actually in a better economic position than we were before the pandemic--stock market increases, not spending on cross country and international vacations, "stimulus checks" etc. We are able to do online grocery and other essential services shopping.  We have internet access and have become quite facile with Zoom meetings connecting family and friends. We have access to 24/7 news, on-line entertainment and so much more.

Do we want this OVER?  Of course we do.  BUT, is criticizing the herculean efforts being made by so many "essential workers," local, state, and federal public health and healthcare workers, government leaders, BIPOC individuals and those living in crowded multi-generational homes or on the street helping?

I say, ABSOLUTELY NOT!  Yes, it's frustrating that there are many more of us now "eligible" than there are doses of vaccine and appointments in closeby locations to get us vaccinated NOW--at our convenience. Yes, the on-line appointment making system can be improved! 

I say, "Let's stop whining and being so selfish!  We need to take a deep breath and keep on keepin' on like we have been.  Let others who are much more at risk get the now limited supply and appointments."  Let's remind ourselves about how fortunate we are to live in Oregon--continual griping and criticizing those who are working night and day on our behalf ISN"T HELPING!  

We CAN get through this TOGETHER!  Again, as my mother who lived through the depression and WW2 would say, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going!" 

Mary Lou Hennrich
Retired Nurse and Public Health Worker

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