People wait in line outside of a COVID-19 vaccine clinic at the Oregon State Fairgrounds on Thursday, Jan. 28. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
Barbara Butzer planned to spend her first year of retirement traveling with her husband.
Instead, the 65-year-old south Salem resident has been largely confined to her home since last March, scrupulously following public health guidelines to avoid getting Covid.
Butzer and her husband Bruce Stermer, 68, pick up their groceries to avoid crowded stores. They’ve stopped visiting Butzer’s stepmother, who lives in a long-term care home in Keizer, and scrapped plans to travel to Michigan to visit Stermer’s mother, 91, who lives in a memory care facility.
“I’m afraid that by the time I get back to see my mom she won’t remember me,” Stermer said.
For their grandson’s recent 10th birthday, they celebrated with cupcakes outside on a basketball court at a nearby school.
“It was foggy, and 35 degrees and we spent like an hour and a half together and sat on the concrete because nobody remembered to bring a chair,” Butzer said.
The couple is eager to get a Covid vaccine and end their isolation, but say they’re increasingly frustrated by a state rollout which they feel has given little thought so far to older Oregonians stuck at home for months.
“I’m willing to wait my turn. I’m willing to say an 80-year-old needs this vaccine more than I do… I’m willing to wait while teachers get vaccinated so the schools can be open,” Butzer said. But she’s not willing to wait forever.
Oregon will begin vaccinating people 80 and older outside of nursing and long-term care homes on Feb. 8, making the state one of the last in the U.S. to open vaccines to seniors.
That includes about 12,600 Marion County and 3,900 Polk County residents, and 168,000 Oregonians, according to Census data.
Seniors, particularly those over 80, account for the largest share of Covid deaths in Oregon and nationwide by far. In January alone, 151 Oregonians 80 and older died with Covid, and that figure is incomplete because of the amount of time it can take to verify death certificate information.
The vaccine is supposed to roll out to seniors gradually over the month of February, with all Oregonians 65 and older eligible by Feb. 28.
But state health officials have cautioned older Oregonians should prepare for a longer wait because of scarce vaccine supply.
“Just because it’s opening up to seniors on those specific days does not mean every senior in those age brackets can get vaccinated, because we don’t have enough vaccines for the people that are eligible,” said Jonathan Modie, spokesman for the Oregon Health Authority.
About 27,500 Oregonians 80 and older have already received at least one dose of the vaccine, most through clinics at nursing homes and long-term care facilities, according to state data.
Joyce DeMonnin, spokeswoman for the Oregon chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons, said she frequently hears from older Oregonians who have faced increased social isolation while waiting for a vaccine. She said that many have been frustrated as they’ve tried to schedule an appointment for a vaccination.
“People can’t even get into a queue to make an appointment,” she said. “The lack of clarity has been frustrating, and it feels like a moving target.”
She also questioned if the vaccines will be made available as planned.
For now, Salem Health’s vaccine clinics in Marion and Polk counties remain the primary way for people eligible for the vaccine to get a shot, but appointments aren’t yet available in Salem for next week on the hospital’s website.
Lisa Wood, Salem Health spokeswoman, said the hospital is preparing to vaccinate seniors and reaching out to senior centers to help with registration. But the availability of appointments will depend on the hospital’s vaccine allocation for the week of Feb. 8, which it hasn’t yet received.
Current hours and information about scheduling a vaccine appointment through Salem Health are on the hospital website. Santiam Hospital in Stayton has set up a form for local seniors to preregister for a vaccine and be notified when doses are available.
Modie said Oregon Health Authority is launching a tool next week where Oregonians can register to be notified when they’re eligible for a vaccine and find events in their area.
People who need help scheduling an appointment or who have other questions about vaccination can call 211, text ORCOVID to 898211or email [email protected]
The White House announced earlier this week vaccine doses would also begin shipping to some local pharmacies the week of Feb. 8, but cautioned availability would be limited. In Oregon, that program will begin with Costco, Albertsons and Safeway stores.
Marion County is working to identify homebound seniors through Northwest Senior and Disability Services and other health care organizations, county spokeswoman Jenna Fritz said. The county plans to host smaller vaccine clinics in the coming weeks to reach seniors who would otherwise struggle to get vaccinated, she said.
Butzer said it’s been frustrating to see the apparent lack of planning to get vaccines to Oregon seniors with just days to go until doses are available in theory. She and her husband are able to drive, but she said she knows many seniors in poorer health who will struggle to leave the house, and many who will struggle to use a computer to book an appointment.
And she said appointments at pharmacies in large stores, which are often crowded, aren’t a good solution for seniors who have spent months avoiding public places.
“We just need to be thinking in a more holistic way,” she said.
Jake Thomas contributed reporting.
Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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