Small-clinic healthcare workers face vaccine appointment barriers
For many healthcare workers in Oregon, getting a COVID-19 vaccine has been easy.
Large hospitals were quick to vaccinate all staff after receiving their first shipments of the vaccine.
But in the state's most populous counties, healthcare workers who don't work at large hospital systems are struggling to make appointments for their first doses by phone and using online tools, continuing to compete for limited supplies.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Charolyn Concepcion says she never stopped doing physical exams for patients applying for life insurance.
Despite continuous attempts to receive the vaccine, by mid-February, the nurse from Hillsboro — who works for a medical laboratory — didn't have an appointment for her first dose.
She says she conducts six to 10 physical exams for people in their homes per week.
"If you're in a system that provides it for you, you're great, you know — if you work in a hospital, you're great," Concepcion said.
In Oregon, the vaccine rollout has been slower than in many other states.
In January, Gov. Kate Brown planned to expand vaccine eligibility to include teachers and seniors, but after officials learned expected vaccine shipments weren't coming, Brown rolled back the expansion.
By late January, teachers were able to make appointments for the vaccine, with shipments increasing. As of Feb. 8, seniors age 80 and up became eligible.
Although Concepcion, 58, says it's imperative for vulnerable groups, including seniors and people with disabilities, and educators to receive vaccines, she hopes the expanded eligibility won't make her chances of scheduling an appointment more difficult.
"The 1a people haven't even been completed yet," Concepcion said, referring to the first group of vaccine-eligible Oregonians.
Concepcion does much of her work outside of the office, going to patients' homes to administer care. She has to be in close contact with patients, indoors, during the exams she gives.
After being told by Washington County officials in mid-January to apply for a vaccine appointment through Kaiser Permanente, Concepcion received an email from Kaiser saying she would hear back within a week.
It took three weeks for Kaiser to email her back, saying she could schedule an appointment.
On Feb. 10, when she followed the website link Kaiser provided, she saw there were no appointments available.
Concepcion said she managed to get a Kaiser employee on the phone, who told her she needs to "keep checking back."
She said that's the same response she received each time she tried to register through the Oregon Health Authority's website for an appointment at the Oregon Convention Center, where the state opened a mass vaccination center in January.
"This just isn't really well-coordinated," Concepcion said. "You have to go through the whole process before you're told there are no shots available."
Healthcare workers at small organizations have also been frustrated that while they had to go to great lengths to schedule appointments, administrative employees at large hospitals, some of whom work only from home, were among the first to receive the vaccine.
Diane Gudmundsen, a chiropractor who runs Anuloma Chiropratic Clinic in Hillsboro, said she and her daughter, who also works at Gudmundsen's clinic as a massage therapist, collectively called vaccine providers 300 times in January.
That was after they registered through a system put together by Washington, Clackamas and Multnomah counties to help healthcare providers schedule appointments at vaccination sites throughout the Portland metro region.
Similar to Concepcion, after Gudmundsen and her daughter were told they would receive an email within a week to schedule an appointment, it took nearly three weeks to hear back.
The response was to "keep trying," because there were no appointments available.
Gudmundsen, who says she has to be in close contact with her patients for extended periods of time, took every possible precaution to limit the risk of exposure to the coronavirus at her clinic. She let only one patient in the clinic at a time, bought air filters and made sure to wear only certified KN95 masks.
"Basically, I feel like we're treated almost as second-class healthcare providers," Gudmundsen said. "Of course, I think emergency room physicians, people who work on COVID units, paramedics, absolutely, those people should have been first — but what hospitals have done giving it to people that aren't even group 1a while we have to experience this, this is wrong."
After hundreds of calls, Gudmundsen heard Oregon Health & Science University was setting up a vaccination site in Hillsboro. She immediately called OHSU and was able to schedule appointments for her and her daughter in mid-January.
With limited appointments available, some healthcare workers in the Portland metro region have abandoned the local vaccination system, choosing to travel to less populous areas to receive a first dose.
Dr. Aarati Kalluri, who owns Infinity Dental Care in Hillsboro, learned a vaccination site for healthcare workers was being set up by Salem Health at the Oregon State Fairgrounds.
The vaccines were only to be given to people living in Marion County, however.
Not wanting to risk long appointment delays in the Portland area, Kalluri and three other staff members from her clinic drove down to the vaccination site early in the morning.
"They said, 'Yes, it is only for Marion County, but we will entertain you because you came here at 8 in the morning,'" Kalluri said, adding that she and her staff were able to receive doses after waiting in a long line.
Kalluri, a mother of two school-age children, said she felt immense gratitude for the vaccinators in Salem who allowed her to receive the vaccine even though she is not a Marion County resident.
She said she extends that gratitude to the people across the state who have worked to set up vaccination sites and administer vaccines to thousands of Oregonians.
By Thursday, Feb. 11, nearly 624,000 doses of the vaccine had been administered statewide, the OHA said. That includes both first and second doses, as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines both require two doses administered weeks apart.
The unprecedented endeavor to vaccinate all Oregonians as fast as possible was bound to come with some hiccups, Kalluri said.
"I really commend the system," she said. "How they were able to within a short period of notice — I mean, we're not talking about months. Less than a month. There was intention to do it as fast as possible. It's marvelous work."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.