The electronic system for booking COVID-19 vaccinations in the Portland area reached its boiling point this week — not only for many thousands of embittered seniors who tried unsuccessfully for hours to schedule appointments on a slow-moving and glitchy website, but for state leaders who finally took notice.
Friday, a day after area residents made 400,000 attempts to book just 3,800 appointments, Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen announced a big change.
Seniors wanting to schedule appointments at the Oregon Convention Center in Northeast Portland apparently now must register their names with the state. The state will send a list of eligible names to the operators of the Convention Center’s mass vaccination clinic, and the operators will then contact residents when their turn in line for a vaccination comes up.
“So you don’t have to wait for three hours clicking, in hopes of getting one,” Allen said.
But much remains unclear about how the system will work, including its apparent design as a random lottery. Operators of the vaccination sites did not respond to questions Friday from The Oregonian/OregonLive about the new process and were not at the news conference Friday when state officials announced the change.
The switch in how appointments will be doled out does not affect people who already have booked an upcoming slot, officials said.
The new process for obtaining appointments will not apply to people with mobility issues seeking shots at Portland International Airport’s drive-thru site. They will still need to compete online or by phone when appointments are released for booking at 9 a.m. on Mondays and Thursdays.
Allen said he’d been watching the online traffic jams created twice a week, when the Portland area’s two mass vaccination clinics released appointments. The problems instantly began to emerge Feb. 8, the first day seniors 80 and older vied for appointments — and only continued the next week when residents 75 and older also became eligible.
Allen said this week’s mess — as residents 70 and older joined the mad scramble — pushed him into action. The change comes just before 215,000 unvaccinated Oregonians age 65 to 69 become eligible for first doses next Monday.
“We’ve gone through the first two weeks with a lot of traffic jam(s), but this week was just really, really extreme,” Allen said.
The clinic operators — which include Legacy Health, Oregon Health & Science University, Kaiser Permanente and Providence Health & Services — earlier this week said problems identified Monday would be fixed. But by Thursday, they seemingly conceded defeat, while the Oregon Health Authority separately acknowledged problems with its own website but claimed it was not related to a surge in web traffic.
Allen’s support of creating a registry — or as he put it, “an invitation system” — is in stark contrast to his stance days before the rollout for seniors began earlier this month. Allen had accepted that allowing up to 768,000 seniors to become eligible over the course of three weeks, when there wasn’t nearly enough vaccine to meet demand, was going to create “chaos.”
“Next week many older adults will inevitably voice frustration,” he told reporters at the time. “Next week you will not have to look hard to see people experiencing confusion. We will fall short.”
Under the new plan, Oregonians seeking an appointment next week at the Oregon Convention Center should register at getvaccinated.oregon.gov and click on the blue “Get Started” box. They can also call 211 or 866-698-6155 to register.
The clinic’s operators didn’t respond to questions Friday posed by The Oregonian/OregonLive about how soon they’ll start booking appointments for eligible seniors. They also didn’t answer questions about whether seniors would be given estimates of how long they’ll have to wait or if they’ll be told their place in line.
But Allen said he estimates that by the end of mid-March all seniors, educators and people in phase 1a, which largely includes health care workers, will have been provided first doses if they want ones. That’s because of larger vaccine shipments expected from the federal government.
The vaccination site operators also didn’t answer a question about the method that will be used — first-come, first-served or oldest first — that will be used to dole out appointments.
Allen, however, said the names will be selected at random and older seniors won’t be prioritized over younger seniors.
“If we prioritize, we’re effectively making people who are younger no longer eligible and we’re not going to do that,” he said.
Allen acknowledged there will be more challenges in the near term, saying seniors should expect to “be frustrated and unhappy” for the next week or two.
“But the landscape changes dramatically for the better,” he said, “in mid-March.”
Oregon plans to expand vaccine eligibility March 29 to include people age 45 to 64 with underlying health conditions, plus some groups of people including farm workers and those who are homeless.
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— Aimee Green; firstname.lastname@example.org; @o_aimee