As of Monday, Oregonians 80 years and older are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as part of a coordinated effort by the Oregon Health Authority and county health officials. However, all available appointments were filled Monday morning. Both the process of reserving an appointment, and the decision-making process about how populations are prioritized, have been somewhat chaotic.
To receive the first injection of the two-dose vaccine, eligible seniors must make appointments online only (see below for instructions), or call 211 for assistance booking an appointment online. Currently, vaccines are being administered at the Oregon Convention Center and at a drive-thru clinic located at Portland International Airport’s red economy parking lot.
Logistics aside, many community leaders question the decision to vaccinate only a segment of the high-risk senior community.
“Eighty I thought was too high a bar, because you can be 78 and still very old and fragile, but you’re too young for this?” Musse Olol, a member of the state’s Vaccine Advisory Committee, told The Skanner.
Seniors 75 and older are eligible for vaccines the week of Feb. 15, and the week of Feb. 22, seniors 70 and older will be eligible. Seniors 65 and older can begin making appointments March 1.
Olol also took exception with Gov. Kate Brown’s decision to prioritize vaccinating teachers over seniors aged 65 to 79 in a push to re-open schools next month. (Brown previously had to walk back earlier statements that seniors 65 and older could begin scheduling vaccine appointments on Jan. 23.)
“I’m sorry, but you intend to open the schools, and all the kids going back to school, they’re going to bring the infection back to the community,” Olol said.
“I have high respect for teachers, but nevertheless I didn’t see that they should get the priority level at this point.
"I have two young kids who live with my mother, who’s in her eighties.”
Outlining Equity Olol, president of the Somali American Council of Oregon, was one of 27 members of the Vaccine Advisory Committee (VAC) that included leaders of color in the healthcare field, culturally specific organizations, and OHA. Originally tasked with helping the OHA identify the most equitable roll-out of the limited COVID-19 vaccine stock, the group’s recommendation process was hindered by a late-stage revelation that they could not, in fact, name the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) community as a population group to be prioritized for vaccination.
The group first met Jan. 5 and had its final meeting last week.
“What we do know is that we’re not able to prioritize services or make decisions based on services solely on someone’s race or ethnicity,” Rachael Banks, Public Health Division Director for the Oregon Health Authority, informed the group during the Jan. 28 session, after checking with state legal advisors. “We’re looking at this in a lot broader factors. The reason we measure race and ethnicity is not based on the social construct, it’s made up, but it’s really to understand the experience people have with racism.”
But Olol emphasized how the data shows BIPOC communities have been the hardest hit by the pandemic. And because so many BIPOC individuals hold public-facing jobs, and jobs in hospitality, vaccinating them sooner would mean protecting a large segment of frontline and essential workers.
“If one of them gets infected, trying to get back to normal life, they can (potentially infect) many more people than, say, someone who works in an office setting or one store,” Olol said.
“The cab driver can go through the entire city.”
Olol suggested prioritizing vaccines by zip code instead.
“Without using ‘BIPOC,’ we know 97230, 97233, has a large African population that have been impacted by this,” he said. “It did not get traction, but I openly proposed using zip codes as a way to identify areas versus special ethnic or racial groups. The data are readily available, and (high rates of infection) correspond with the BIPOC community.
"You don’t have to use the word, you can just use the data.”
It was an especially disheartening development for Olol, a member of the Council Trust of Oregon, which oversaw the $62 million Oregon Cares Fund for Black Relief and Resiliency. Late last year the remaining $8.8 million was frozen pending the results of a class action lawsuit questioning the legality of the fund. Olol said he had that in mind as he worked with VAC.
In addition, members of VAC also felt they needed much more time than they were given to formalize recommendations.
“This process should’ve started much, much earlier,” Olol said. “That way when the legality (of prioritizing BIPOC communities) kicked in we’d have time to say, ok, if we can’t use BIPOC, let’s use non-racialized terms. But we didn’t have enough time to react to that and also have our own proposal that can be put in place.”
In the end, VAC recommended the prioritization of four groups: frontline essential workers, adults 65 and younger with other health conditions, youth 16 years and older and adults in legal custody, and those living in low-income and congregate senior housing.
“At least it was, overall, a positive step,” Olol said. “Since COVID-19 started, I’m impressed by this OHA Equity Team -- they are a relatively new team -- because they really understood the communities, they really made an effort to get to know the communities. It’s something I have not seen at the county level.”
He added, “I actually say, let’s have the state have oversight over the county level, in equity.”
If you are 80 or older, or trying to schedule on behalf of someone 80 or older, go to covidvaccine.oregon.gov.
Click “start chat” on the pop-up window in the lower right-hand corner. An automated “chat” will begin. Click “vaccine eligibility.”
Respond to questions about age, whether you have a mobility-related disability, allergies to medication or prior vaccines, and location preferences. Once you are cleared to schedule a vaccination, you can book an appointment online. For assistance, call 211. You will not be able to schedule a vaccine by calling Multnomah County.
To receive updates about the COVID-19 vaccine, text ORCOVID to 898211, or email [email protected] For more information, call the State Call Center at 211 or 1-866-698-6155 or visit https://multco.us/novel-coronavirus-covid-19/covid-19-vaccine-information.