Select Oregon Pharmacies Will Schedule COVID-19 Vaccine Appointments This week

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Select Oregon pharmacies will begin receiving COVID-19 vaccines through a new federal distribution program this week, with the state’s doses going to Costco, Health Mart, Safeway and Albertsons during the program’s initial phase.

Already, though, there is uncertainty over just when the retail pharmacies will receive their vaccines, start scheduling appointments and begin vaccinating eligible Oregonians. The confusion mirrors the broader questions affecting the vaccine rollout.

White House officials announced last week that approximately 1 million vaccine doses would be shipped directly to 6,500 pharmacies across the country this week in the first phase of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, with the possibility that vaccinations could begin as soon as Thursday.

Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said that 133 pharmacies across the state would receive a combined 12,000 doses this week, with an average of 90 doses going to each participating pharmacy.

However, Trushar Patel, a pharmacist and owner of three Health Mart pharmacies in Tillamook, Gold Beach and Salem, said he was still awaiting clarification from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about whether the doses would show up Thursday or Friday.

He said the three pharmacies will wait until Monday to begin vaccinations to ensure they have the doses in hand. He said the appointments will be scheduled out over the course of next week.

Kristen Breland, a spokesman for Health Mart, said Tuesday that the company hoped to launch its online scheduler Wednesday. Patel encouraged individuals without internet access to seek help from friends and family so that pharmacies can avoid a flood of calls, but encouraged those who couldn’t access the internet to call their Health Mart pharmacy directly.

Approximately nine Health Mart locations across the state are expected to receive vaccines this week, but Breland said the company needed confirmation from the federal government before it could announce the locations receiving doses.

During this early stage of the vaccine rollout, Oregon is limiting vaccines to health care workers, people living in nursing homes and other congregate care settings, teachers and -- beginning this week -- people ages 80 and over. Oregonians over 75 will become eligible to receive vaccines on Feb. 15.

Most people up to now have received their vaccines at clinics, senior living facilities or special vaccination sites like the Oregon Convention Center. The Biden administration hopes its retail pharmacy program will ultimately make vaccines accessible to more Americans.

The vast majority of the vaccine doses that Oregon is receiving through the program this week will go to Safeway and Albertsons pharmacies across the state. The two grocery chains share common ownership and operate in tandem.

Company spokesman Jill McGinnis said they anticipate approximately 11,500 doses to be shipped to 115 Albertsons and Safeway pharmacies in Oregon.

All but four of the company’s Oregon pharmacies are expected to receive doses. The Albertsons locations in Hillsboro and Bend, the Safeway in St. Helens and the company’s stand alone pharmacy in Myrtle Creek will not receive doses.

Eligible Oregonians will be able to sign up for appointments online through Albertsons and Safeway sometime later this week by visiting www.albertsons.com/COVID-19 and www.safeway.com/COVID-19. McGinnis did not yet know when appointment slots would open. She said that Oregonians who don’t have access to the internet can call their pharmacies directly to try to schedule appointments.

“The online scheduler will open in conjunction with our receiving of the doses,” McGinnis said. “It is not open currently. We ask that the public continue to check over the course of the week and appreciate their patience.”

Vaccine doses will also be going to 13 Costco locations statewide, according to the company’s website. Those stores are in Albany, Aloha, Bend, Central Point, Clackamas, Eugene, Hillsboro, Portland, Roseburg, Salem, Tigard, Warrenton and Wilsonville.

Costco has an online portal for vaccine appointments at https://www.costco.com/covid-vaccine.html. Appointments were not available Tuesday and it was not clear whether Costco had already filled all its vaccine appointment slots. A Costco spokesman would not answer questions about the company’s participation in the vaccine program.

Only Oregonians currently eligible to receive vaccines under state guidelines will be able to sign up for appointments through the participating pharmacies.

Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that vaccines be provided to broader groups of people if doses are in danger of being wasted, but that is unlikely to happen given the limited supply arriving at Oregon pharmacies this week.

Elderly Oregonians faced major obstacles trying to sign up for COVID-19 vaccinations Monday when vaccines became available to those 80 years old and older. Some reported problems with online sign-up systems as metro-area appointments filled up in just two and a half hours.

Patel, the Health Mart pharmacist, said his Tillamook pharmacy is working directly with the county to ensure it can accommodate vulnerable individuals who are already on the county’s waitlist for COVID-19 vaccines. However, appointments at his other pharmacies and a certain percentage of appointments at the Tillamook pharmacy will still be made available to eligible Oregonians online.

But he expects there will be high demand for the limited number of vaccines available. Patel said they are prepared to answer questions and help customers sign up for appointments, but said there could be hiccups along the way as they get the program running.

The pharmacies also haven’t been told how many vaccines they should expect in subsequent weeks, Patel said. That has made it difficult for them to plan ahead. He said they will tentatively schedule customers who receive their first doses next week for second doses under the assumption that their vaccine allotment will go up over time, but may have to move second appointments around if they receive fewer doses than anticipated moving forward.

While Oregon pharmacies will receive only a limited number of doses this week, Jeff Zients, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator, told reporters last week that the program could be scaled up over time, with doses eventually being shipped to roughly 40,000 pharmacies nationwide.

Patel said he is hopeful that pharmacies will ultimately play an important role in the nation’s vaccine effort.

“Even though we’re a small piece of the puzzle,” Patel said, “we’re glad we’re able to do something for the community and can make a difference.”

-- Jamie Goldberg | [email protected] | @jamiebgoldberg

This story was originally published by The Oregonian/OregonLive and is posted here through a content-sharing agreement among a dozen media outlets in Oregon.

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