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I Spent the Past Six Weeks Finding COVID-19 Vaccine Appointments. Here’s How You Can Obtain One While Keeping Your Chill.

If you do nothing else, register with the state’s system for an appointment.

I thought I was good, not lucky.

On Feb. 22, I had an unexpectedly easy time booking my mother an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine at the Oregon Convention Center. It took me just a minute or two, and I had her signed up by 9 am on the same Monday she became eligible.

That's how I started offering to help other older Oregonians book a shot. I figured I had the web savvy they needed.

The next senior for whom I offered to book an appointment declined. He informed me: "It's luck." I thought he was foolish not to take advantage of my knack for clicking quickly.

But I soon learned he was more right than wrong: Speed alone didn't cut it. Not with Oregon's system for finding a vaccine—which can be confusing, piecemeal and filled with glitches.

Soon, I found myself waking at 4 am—two mornings in a row—in a quest to book a Walgreens appointment.

So I kept going. Over the past six weeks, I've been regularly assisting people as they became eligible for an appointment.

Now it's your turn.

On April 19, everyone in Oregon over the age of 16 is eligible to get a COVID-19 shot. That's going to create a surge of demand. (Oregon Health Authority says you can book your appointment now, so long as the date of the shot is after you become eligible.) If past is prologue, Oregon's vaccination infrastructure will not support a smooth search.

There's stress and despair to seeking an appointment for a potentially lifesaving vaccine—and going online to find nothing available.

Some people I met faced the challenge cheerfully; others made up stories about how the deck was stacked against them. I derived a vicarious joy by matching people with their time slot.

I turned my low-grade internet addiction to good use. Instead of idly clicking on Facebook and tunneling down a rabbit hole of rage, I found a call to action: seeking open appointments.

One Saturday, I called down a list of people I had who were looking for shots. The first man I reached didn't want a Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but he walked the phone to his landlady, who did—and who also wanted help for a more elderly friend.

In an environment where social media seem to warp any shared understanding of what's true, I finally found a good use for Facebook. (I'm as surprised by that as anyone.) A Facebook group, now called Find a COVID Shot Oregon, offers tips on booking appointments and leads on openings. It became an invaluable help to my helping others (and myself).

I haven't aided that many people: a dozen, give or take. I'm no Vaccine Fairy. But it gave me a chance to help in a small way, get a sense of this moment, and pass along some skills.

Maybe what I've learned can help you, too.

1. Start by getting a lottery ticket.

If you do nothing else, register with the state's system for an appointment. Go to getvaccinated.oregon.gov and sign up now, even if you won't be eligible until April 19.

That's a lottery system, which distributes 8,000 shots daily, five days a week, at the Oregon Convention Center. Friends and colleagues registered with this site—and were offered a shot before I was. Don't be like me; get on the list now.

You will get an email or text when your name is picked for an appointment.

(This system was set up after a whole bunch of Oregon seniors were put in competition to register for doses at the Oregon Convention Center. After a couple of website crashes, the state came up with a lottery system. You no longer have to race for appointments online as you do with some of the other options.)

If you're not in a hurry, you can stop reading here. That's all you need to do to get a shot—eventually.

The rest of this advice is for if you're impatient, eager or worried; face health risks right now or have other reasons to want a prompt shot; or don't want to go to a mass vaccination site.

2. A couple of suggestions on what not to do.

Don't sit at your computer all day. Don't go crazy. Instead, set yourself a block of time to look.

It's also probably not worth your time to ask your doctor about a COVID shot. Some doctor's offices will be able to book appointments. Providence and Kaiser Permanente were recently offering vaccines. But most of those clinics were offering Johnson & Johnson, the supply of which is now almost nonexistent for a few weeks, after a manufacturing mishap and a federal pause to explore a possible side effect. Eventually, doctor's offices will be offering shots. So if you wait, that may be an option later.

3. Set an alarm for 9 am.

On Monday through Thursday mornings, Oregon Health & Science University opens appointments for its two drive-thru vaccine sites at Portland International Airport and Hillsboro Stadium: Just Google "ohsu covid vaccine" and click on the first choice that comes up.

Expect to be online at 9 am to have a shot at these appointments. "OHSU released 5,000 new COVID-19 vaccination appointments this morning at 9 am, and they were booked within 30 minutes," OHSU spokeswoman Franny White said after the April 12 release.

4. Prepare to multitask with pharmacies.

Part of the challenge is that a lot of places are giving small numbers of shots, so there's a lot of different places to look.

"Some of this is just sort of a byproduct of our health care system in the United States," says Jeff McNamee, a volunteer moderator of the Facebook group Find a COVID Shot Oregon. "Although, to be fair, I don't know how much better it could be. A lot of it is, there's almost too many options now."

With many appointment locations, there are many places to go looking, including at least nine different pharmacy chains. (Even individual company sites sometimes make you choose a specific location to look for open appointments.)

Two websites pull relatively up-to-date information from multiple pharmacy websites so you don't have to check individual sites: getmyvaccine.org and vaccinespotter.org.

CVS and Rite Aid appointments are sometimes available at midnight. Walgreens appointments have shown up (sometimes) at 3 or 4 am. Costco has sometimes released its shots around lunch, maybe 12:15 pm. Albertsons and Safeway appointments have shown up on a Thursday at 5 or 6 pm.

Each website requires you to individually register. If you're getting up at 3 or 4 am, you might want to create an account at the pharmacy site beforehand.
5. Hit the highway.

If you can drive out of town to an appointment, your options open up. The Oregon Health Authority prefers people to get their shots in their own county, but you're still allowed to go elsewhere.

"Right now, the formula that allocates doses is based on population," says McNamee. "So it assumes you're getting vaccinated where you live, but you can get vaccinated also where you work, and way more people commute from, say, Sherwood to Portland than from Portland to Sherwood. So it leaves extra doses."

McNamee spotted a resulting pattern: "A fair number of appointments stay open longer in places like Scappoose, St. Helens, Salem, Woodburn, Corvallis, Albany, places like that."

6. Sign up for the Facebook group.

The hunt is easier with friends. Find a COVID Shot Oregon turns the search into a group project: You can benefit from other people's search and help in turn. They post open appointments. They keep a tips list, too. (A recent poll of the group's eligible members showed the average participant got an appointment within three days.)

7. Vaccines are free.

That's true wherever you get your vaccine. The provider will want your insurance information, so someone else pays. But they have to give you a shot whether you're insured or not. If a provider tries to make you pay, please contact this newspaper so we can name and shame them.

8. It's not over.

We are in the middle of a new surge in COVID cases the likes of which the state has not seen in a year. You read that correctly: Despite more than one-third of the state getting at least one dose of vaccine, we are seeing case counts rise as fast as the worst times during the pandemic in Oregon.

So don't let up at the finish line. The advice from public health experts remains: Wear a mask, possibly two. Keep your distance from other people, whenever possible. Get your shot if you can.