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Oregon moves up COVID-19 vaccination timeline, prepares to vaccinate seniors

Kelly Beckley, RN, prepares the Pfizer vaccine ahead of the opening of a COVID-19 vaccination clinic being held at the Oregon Convention Center, Jan. 27, 2021. The clinic is supported by PortlandÕs four health systems and will run at least through this week and aims to give 2,000 vaccinations per day to pre-registered recipients.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Kelly Beckley, RN, prepares the Pfizer vaccine ahead of the opening of a COVID-19 vaccination clinic being held at the Oregon Convention Center, Jan. 27, 2021. The clinic is supported by PortlandÕs four health systems and will run at least through this week and aims to give 2,000 vaccinations per day to pre-registered recipients.

Oregon officials, increasingly confident about COVID-19 vaccine supply, are speeding up their vaccination timeline. Officials say the increased supply will help them give a first dose to a majority of Oregon’s seniors by early April. That means the state can move on to other groups almost a month earlier than previously expected.

“That’s good news for seniors. It’s also good news for frontline workers, people with underlying health conditions, and others left in line,” said Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen. He estimated that by July Oregon could be ready to vaccinate people beyond what the state is calling “1b” in its phased approach to inoculations.

It’s welcome news, as Oregon prepares to open vaccinations to almost 800,000 seniors on Feb. 8, doubling the number of people eligible. The state also announced a series of new online tools to help connect eligible people with vaccines. Despite a comparatively smooth rollout, there have been speed bumps and pinch points, and many health-care workers in the state’s most populous counties are still waiting their turn. When access is expanded to all people older than 65, state officials anticipate those problems will only increase.

“If you watched the senior category roll out everywhere else in the country, it was really chaotic. And it’s gonna be chaotic here too,” Allen said. At least at first, there won’t be enough vaccines or appointments to go around. He said he hopes that opening up vaccinations to seniors in phases will help manage the rush.

To help handle the flood of eager appointment-seekers, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown plans to mobilize the National Guard to staff Oregon’s COVID-19 helpline, accessed by calling 211.

Gov Kate Brown announced the latest on the state’s COVID-19 response Friday morning. Watch her press conference:

The Biden administration announced that states would be receiving three weeks advance notice of their vaccine supply. Oregon health officials announced Friday that, beginning next week, Oregon’s vaccine shipments will increase from 55,000 first doses a week to 75,000 first doses a week. Additional shots will also become available through the federal pharmacy program.

Allen is confident that the state has the capacity to get doses in arms the same week the shots arrive.

“We’re averaging 16,000 doses a day. Right now, our peak day was last Friday. We administered 24,000 doses over the course of the day, and everyone who was vaccinating was asking for more,” Allen said.

If you do the math, Oregon Health Authority vaccination lead and Chief Financial Officer Dave Baden said, Oregon will have received enough vaccine doses to give 75% of Oregon’s seniors their first dose by early April. “And we’ll have enough for the entire population just a few weeks later,” Baden said.

Because the state counts first and second dose vaccines separately, Oregon will also have enough to give everyone who received their first dose a second one.

Once 75% of people older than 65 have received the first dose of the vaccine, other groups will be able to schedule appointments.

But vaccine demand will greatly outpace supply through March, and supply and demand will vary from county to county. That’s been true for much of the rollout.

For some Oregonians, getting vaccinated has been easy. Some counties have already vaccinated all of their willing health-care workers and school employees. But more populous counties have struggled to reach health-care workers who aren’t affiliated with major hospital organizations. OPB has spoken to Portland-area nurses, teachers and at-home caregivers who have struggled to make appointments using online tools, as they compete for limited slots using a variety of less-than-intuitive online signup systems.

Because counties are at different stages in their vaccination efforts, a portion of vaccines will continue to be allocated specifically for people in the priority group Oregon is calling “1a,” primarily composed of health-care workers, so they will not be competing with seniors for scarce appointments. Vaccines for adults and age-eligible youth in custody will also be set aside.

Different counties are going to see different solutions.

“It’s frustrating, but because of the way things work, is going to vary all across the state with 34 different local public health authorities,” Allen told OPB. He said local public health authorities understand the needs of their communities best, especially in a state as diverse as Oregon. In some counties, people will be vaccinated at doctors’ offices. In others, small pop-up clinics will administer a majority of the vaccines.

For example, in Douglas County vaccines will be sent to pharmacies and medical offices.

Health-care workers in the Portland metro area have been frustrated with the current system, which only lets them schedule appointments at the Oregon Convention Center one week in advance. Allen said they’ll soon be able to make appointments several weeks in advance.

Oregon Health Authority Communications Director Robb Cowie told OPB that a new online system, planned to launch next week, will fix some of the problems with that appointment system so far.

Currently, people are only able to sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine in English or Spanish. The new tool will support 12 languages. Right now, an individual can only schedule one appointment at a time. That means at-home caretakers and the people they care for need to schedule separate appointments and take multiple trips to vaccination centers. The new website will change that, too.

People will be able to create a profile and use it to schedule vaccinations for multiple people at once. Given the limited number of appointments available, Allen asked seniors younger than 80 to wait a week to schedule their appointments.

The state also announced a new web tool that will be available to all Oregonians, created by Google and called Get Vaccinated Oregon. It will allow people to register online for text or email notifications letting them know when they’re eligible, and alert them when a vaccination clinic will be held nearby.

Pharmacies in Portland and across the state will also be receiving vaccines straight from the federal government.

Oregon seniors, as a group, face specific challenges. Allen said that counties are working to set up transit and mobility aids for seniors, and to arrange clinics close to where seniors live.

There still won’t be enough appointments for everyone. It’s very likely that appointments will fill quickly, and people will likely still log on to find that there are no appointments available. Even with the National Guard waiting on the phone to provide tech support, there will be waits.

“I’m asking seniors to be patient, but you will get a vaccine,” Brown said.

The Oregon Health Authority expects that even with the 30 National Guard troops deployed to operate the state’s 211 helpline, it could take a while for callers to get through. People can also receive information by texting ORCOVID to 89821. Allen asked that people wait until they are eligible for the vaccine to use the phone line, and suggested they try to answer their questions with the text bot or online tools first.

There is relief on the horizon. The Biden administration said it’s continuing to secure more doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and will announce further increases in state allocations in the future. The much-anticipated single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine was submitted to the FDA for emergency use authorization. If approved, Oregon will begin to receive shipments of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which just requires one dose, and can be administered without cold storage.

Allen told OPB that the Oregon Health Authority will potentially use the new vaccine to reach populations that might have trouble scheduling a second dose, like the state’s houseless population.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Erin Ross