Salem Health began a Covid vaccine clinic at the state fairgrounds on Jan. 7 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Update: This article was updated to reflect the new vaccination timeline Gov. Kate Brown announced Jan. 15.

Kerry Burtis was skeptical when a friend told him anyone could go get a Covid vaccine at the Oregon State Fairgrounds.

Burtis, a music instructor at Chemeketa Community College, knew he didn’t fall under the state guidelines for those selected to receive the vaccine first - health care workers, nursing home residents and first responders.

But his friend told him the vaccines were being given to anyone so they wouldn’t be wasted. Burtis, who's in his early 60s, and his wife decided to check.

“Neither one of us wanted to be those people who took the vaccine from somebody more worthy or who needed it, but you hear stories of vaccines going to waste,” Burtis said.

The vaccination clinic at the state fairgrounds is run by Salem Health with help from the National Guard, so Burtis signed into MyChart, his online medical record at Salem Health.

He saw an option in the menu to fill out paperwork for a vaccine and report to the fairgrounds, he said. There was nothing on the form about eligibility, so Burtis and his wife showed up Wednesday afternoon around 1:30 p.m., forms in hand. He said nobody staffing the clinic asked if he was a health care worker or otherwise eligible.

When the pair asked to double-check they weren’t taking needed vaccine away from health care workers, Burtis said multiple people staffing the clinic reassured them it was fine.

“If they’d have said, ‘I don’t know where you’ve heard that, you’re not the right group, go home,’ we would have gone home,” he said. Instead, he and his wife were able to get vaccinated.

As Salem has rolled out the largest mass vaccination clinic in Oregon over the past week, questions and confusion over who’s able to get a Covid vaccine have surrounded the process. Because there are more people seeking vaccination than vaccines available, state and federal health agencies have prioritized doses taking into account the people most likely to be exposed to Covid - like hospital employees - and those most at risk for serious illness or death from the virus.

Oregon is restricting vaccines to a group called phase 1A, a broad category that covers health care workers, first responders and nursing home residents. The full state list of people included in that group is over five pages long and includes parents and caregivers of medically fragile children, attorneys who regularly visit county jails and morticians.

On Jan. 12, Gov. Kate Brown announced Oregonians 65 and older, K-12 school employees and child care workers will become eligible on Jan. 23. Friday afternoon, she rolled that timeline back after finding out expected federal vaccine shipments weren't coming through. Oregonians 80 and older will now be eligible Feb. 8.

Salem Health spokesman Michael Gay said those rules haven’t changed, Burtis’ experience notwithstanding. The nurses and National Guard staffing the clinic are supposed to confirm people are eligible, he said, though Salem Health relies on people’s word that they qualify.

“Our priority is vaccinating as many people as possible, following (Oregon Health Authority) guidance. As we have quickly set-up the clinic, there have been many opportunities to adjust and improve our workflows as guidance and circumstances have changed," Gay said in an email. "We’ve improved our screening questions as time has gone on, but the situation was and remains very fluid.”

Gay said the clinic will vaccinate people who fall outside guidelines at the end of the day if already-mixed syringes of vaccine would otherwise go to waste. He declined to say how often this has occurred, but said it did not account for a substantial number of vaccines.

“This not a common occurrence and is not something that can currently be scheduled,” he said.

The Oregon Health Authority does not require providers to verify that people are part of an eligible group and does not have standards for doing so, spokesman Jonathan Modie said, but expects providers to ask people to identify that they’re eligible. Gay said Salem Health is currently doing this at the clinic.

But other Salem residents have reported similar experiences receiving vaccines at the fairgrounds without having to verify they’re eligible.

They include city councilor Tom Andersen, who was vaccinated Wednesday afternoon after hearing from a friend the clinic was willing to vaccinate nearly anyone if extra doses remained. Andersen, 69, said he’s likely eligible because his work as an attorney requires him to visit the county jail, but confirmed no one asked about eligibility. He said he assumed the clinic was vaccinating people outside the guidelines to avoid wasting doses.

“Either they give them to people who show up or they throw them away,” he said.

Salem blogger Brian Hines reported he and his wife got vaccinated Thursday following the same process Burtis used. Both are in their 70s with underlying medical conditions, Hines wrote, criteria that should make them eligible starting next week. He said a friend over 65 was turned away the same afternoon.

“I still hope that Salem Health will be more transparent about who, exactly, can get a shot. There's clearly a difference between the overt policy on the Salem Health Covid Vaccine web page … and the actual policy,” Hines wrote in a blog post.

Gay said Salem Health has vaccinated over 15,000 people at the fairgrounds in the week the clinic has been operating.

“It is not surprising that some people who did not fit the criteria were vaccinated yesterday or on other days given the self-attestation process. Low volumes this afternoon clearly indicate we are following the OHA guidelines. It is becoming apparent we have vaccinated a large portion of the 1a group in Marion County,” Gay said. “Everyone who receives a vaccine protects our community from Covid 19.”

Starting Jan. 15, the clinic began offering vaccines to any Oregonian who meets eligibility criteria, expanding beyond Marion County residents.

“This decision is temporary and will assist in the goal of getting all Oregon residents in Phase 1a vaccinated as hospitals and public health agencies in other parts of our state plan for their own vaccine clinics,” Salem Health said on its Facebook page.

More information about Salem Health's vaccine clinics in Salem and Dallas, including paperwork, eligibility and hours of operation, is available on the Salem Health website.

Correction: This article originally misstated the number of vaccines given at the fairgrounds clinic. It is more than 15,000. The original figure of over 19,000 included Salem Health employees vaccinated at the hospital.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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