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'Extraordinarily frustrating': Oregon leaves seniors guessing on how to sign up for COVID-19 vaccine

Seniors 80 years and older are eligible for the vaccine starting Feb. 8. As of Wednesday, seniors can't make online appointments through the state’s online portal.

PORTLAND, Ore — The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) is leaving it up to seniors 80 and older to figure out how to sign up to get the COVID-19 vaccine in the greater Portland area. So far there has been little communication that tells them how to sign up and how many doses will be available in the first week.

Seniors 80+ are eligible to get the vaccine starting Feb. 8 but whether there will be any doses for them on that day is not clear. In the meantime, trying to register is an exercise in frustration.

Kristina Haddad spent the morning Tuesday trying to help her 84-year-old mother, Cherry, sign up for a shot. At around 7 a.m. she called the number OHA put on its website for questions about the vaccine: 866-698-6155. And she spent the entire morning on hold.

“I didn’t get a live person until about 11 a.m.," Haddad said. "So, that’s almost four hours. They said we’ll be with you shortly and the gentleman was very nice, but he couldn’t offer much help. Basically, told me I would need to go on the website portal to make an appointment once that opens."

And that’s a key point -- once it opens. As of Wednesday, seniors can't make online appointments through the state’s online portal. It seems the state could have included that sort of simple message at the beginning of the hold music on the phone, but they did not.

When Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said seniors 80 and over would be eligible for shots starting Feb. 8 she energized a group of 168,000 people, many already angry they'd been put behind teachers for the shots.

RELATED: Q&A: Gov. Brown on vaccinating teachers and seniors, reopening schools

Judy Boyer runs the Northeast Portland chapter of the AARP which advocates for people 50 years and older.

“We believe educators and essential workers should be vaccinated and now they’re saying the prisoners, but don’t put seniors in the back," Boyer said. "Why aren’t we right alongside in the first group?”

Now that the start date is drawing near, seniors have lots of practical and reasonable questions:

  • How do they sign up?
  • Why isn't there a phone number they can call to get an appointment?
  • When can they sign up?
  • In the tri-county area, will they have to go to the Oregon Convention Center mass vaccination clinic? And how will they safely get there?

Richard Hunter is also a member of the Northeast Portland AARP.

“That’s one of the problems that people who are older are going to have issues with because everybody don’t have access to the same transportation services," he explained. "And so, it’s going to be hard for seniors even to get a ride places. And then, why you going to force seniors to stand up in line for hours?”.

A recent court ruling requiring Oregon prisoners be vaccinated immediately may be throwing a wrench in OHA’s plans-- but it’s unclear if there was much of a plan to help senior Oregonians to begin with.

RELATED: Oregon will prioritize vaccinating inmates after judge’s ruling

Kristina Haddad learned that during one long morning on hold.

“So, I’m going to go on early morning on the 7th I guess and try and make an appointment,"  Haddad said. "He said there’s no other options, you can’t do it on the phone. It’s just the Oregon Convention Center at this point. I think there were a few other options that we didn’t qualify for, so it’s just extraordinarily frustrating,” she said.

The idea of getting a vaccine from a local pharmacy or school is something many seniors support and there may be some doses sent by the federal government to Costco, Safeway and Albertsons pharmacies but it’s unclear when that would happen.

RELATED: Oregon pharmacies will soon be able to administer the COVID-19 vaccine

The White House is holding briefings on the pandemic and vaccine roll out three times a week. OHA has not replied to suggestions that they do the same thing.

Have a tip or story idea for Pat Dooris? Email him at pdooris@kgw.com.

RELATED: Here's how Portland metro area residents can register for the COVID-19 vaccine