PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon health officials say they are expecting chaos next week, when about 167,000 people who are 80 years or older will become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.
In preparation for the drastic increase of eligible people, Gov. Kate Brown announced Friday that 30 additional National Guard members will be deployed to help field calls and texts from seniors signing up and seeking information on vaccinations.
“It’s probably going to be pretty chaotic here,” Director Patrick Allen told The Associated Press Thursday night. “We are probably going to have phone lines that are hard to get through on. We are going to have scheduling systems that are going to be hard to get appointments.”
Beginning Feb. 8, Oregonians who are 80 or older will be eligible for the vaccine. The week of Feb. 15, seniors 75 and older will be eligible eligible. The week of Feb. 22, seniors 70 and older will be eligible. Lastly, the week of March 1, seniors 65 and older will be eligible.
Oregon officials opted to prioritize teachers before the elderly for COVID vaccinations in an attempt to get children back to in-person learning faster.
Gov. Brown said Oregon's phased approach for the elderly will help avoid the “nightmare” of extensive lines and wait times occurring in other states.
“Every state has had challenges with the vaccine rollout,” Brown said. “In New York seniors who signed up for vaccine appointments had them rescinded due to lack of supply.”
In total by early March, around 700,000 seniors in Oregon will be eligible for the vaccine.
“I want to thank our seniors for their patience thus far, and for their continued patience in the coming days and weeks. We are still managing a scarce resource. There will be hiccups in this process, but we are going to get through them," Brown said.
Oregon Health Authority has been working with counties to make sure seniors have access to the vaccine, although signing up for an appointment will vary from community to community.
While 211info, Oregon and Southwest Washington’s information referral line for health and human services, is available, the health authority is launching an additional online tool on Monday.
The online tool is where caregivers or family members of Oregon seniors can to sign up their elderly family member for a vaccine.
“We are trying to surround the people, who help seniors, with the information they need so that if the seniors themselves aren’t able to navigate the systems – the people around them know what to do,” Allen said.
In addition, health officials are distributing information to clinics, home care agencies and advocacy groups. Along with mass vaccination sites, vaccines will also be administered to local practices and public health facilities, drive-thru centers and mobile sites.
The Health Authority reported 846 new confirmed and presumptive cases of COVID-19, bringing the state total to 146,138. The death toll is 2,002.
While Feb. 8 may draw pandemonium, health officials did have good news — the state is ahead of the original projected vaccine timeline projection.
“The fact of the matter is the federal supply has now improved such that we think we are going to be able to be through 75% of everybody who is eligible now, including seniors, which is about 1.3 million people by early April,” Allen said.
The updated timeline, which accounts for people receiving the first dose not both, is one month earlier than originally projected.
Health officials said that up until a couple weeks ago, Oregon was consistently getting 52,000 first vaccine doses a week. However that is increasing to 75,600 doses.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Oregon is tied for 12th in nation for population vaccination. About 8.8% of the state's population is vaccinated.
Officials from the health authority said that next week 38% of available doses will be earmarked for seniors.
The Tri-County area, which includes Portland, will receive 21,000 doses next week. Out of that, 7,000 will be earmarked for people 80 or older.
For weeks, officials have discussed the challenge of dealing with the scarce supply of vaccine.
However, Allen said that with the increased vaccine supply, and if it remains consistent, the eligibility dates of elderly groups will not be delayed.
“Things are going to be a little bit chaotic, but we are getting enough vaccine where we are going to be able to work quickly through this population and be able to finish sooner than we thought,” Allen said.
Cline is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.