February 2, 2021

'It's just utter chaos': What it's like trying to schedule a Covid-19 vaccine appointment

Daily Briefing

    State and local health departments are in charge of organizing, scheduling, and distributing Covid-19 vaccines, and in many places, a chaotic vaccine rollout has made it challenging for eligible patients to get vaccinated—as well as for some doctors and experts trying to schedule vaccine appointments themselves.

    When will the Covid-19 epidemic end? Here are the good, bad, and ugly scenarios.

    'It's just utter chaos'

    Arghavan Salles, an intensive care physician in Phoenix, spent days trying to book an appointment for her mother in California to receive a vaccine.

    Salles started by searching "How to get Covid vaccine Santa Clara County" on Google, which led her to a county website explaining vaccine eligibility. Salles' 70-year-old mother met the eligibility requirements, but the website didn't explain how to schedule a vaccination appointment.

    Salles then looked at the website for her mother's health insurance provider, which directed her to CDC's website. CDC's website also had no information on scheduling a Covid-19 vaccine appointment in California.

    Next, Salles visited a website for the California Department of Public Health, where she found a section labeled: "When, where, and how can I get a vaccine?" But the site ultimately didn't offer any information on how to schedule an appointment to get a Covid-19 vaccine, Salles discovered.

    Salles described her experience as "utter chaos," STAT News' Nicholas St. Fleur reports. "We're all just desperate to figure out how to get this for the people who matter most in our lives and it's very, very challenging, and so super frustrating," Salles said.

    According to St. Fleur, Salles took to Twitter to talk about her frustration, and she received messages from people all over the country who reported similar experiences.

    "I was surprised at how many people from how many places were spending a lot of time trying to find vaccines for their loved ones," Salles said. "So many people are spending hours and hours trying to just schedule what should be a very simple thing."

    After days of trying, Salles was able to schedule an appointment for her mother at Stanford Health Care, thanks to information she received from a friend who worked there.

    But reflecting on her experience, she told St. Fleur, "It shouldn't take four days for me to try to figure out, and have to crowdsource from thousands of people, how to get my mother a vaccine when we're trying to vaccinate everyone."

    'It's a free-for-all'

    Leila Mureebe, a vascular surgeon in North Carolina, had similar struggles. She attempted to schedule appointments for her 83-year-old parents in Collier County, Florida, which was using Eventbrite as a platform for vaccination scheduling. Mureebe attempted to make the appointments as soon as signups opened, but after making two appointment requests, she was kicked off the service. Ultimately, she was booted from the platform four or five times before she was told that all appointments had been booked, Mureebe said.

    "This is an unnecessary side effect of the vaccine," Mureebe said. "Older people have it rough enough with depression and all the other things due to the social isolation from this virus. This is precisely the last thing they need."

    Vineet Arora, an academic hospitalist at the University of Chicago Medicine, tried using three different computer screens, plus her phone, to attempt to book Covid-19 vaccine appointments for her parents in Maryland, as well as an appointment for her children's caretaker in Illinois. But the application she was using to fill out required health information for the appointments frequently crashed.

    "It's basically a free-for-all," she said. "It's a mess, and it's incredibly unfair to have a first-come first-served system, and inefficient."

    In Florida, CD Davidson-Hiers, a reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat, has been helping patients navigate the sign-up process, the Washington Post's Derek Hawkins reports. Davidson-Hiers said she's spoken to more than 160 seniors who've needed help figuring out how to sign up for a Covid-19 vaccine appointment.

    "The fact is that, right now, solid information is therapeutic," Davidson-Hiers said. "When people call me and they say, 'I'm confused,' I say, 'Yeah, me too, which means you did it right. With this virus, nothing is as it seems.'"

    Even Stanley Plotkin—a vaccinologist who has been consulting for the World Health Organization, Moderna, Oxford University, Sanofi, and Inovio through the vaccine development process and who helped develop the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations—said he's had difficulty figuring out how to schedule an appointment for a Covid-19 vaccine.

    Plotkin told the Washington Post's Eli Saslow that he's been calling around for weeks in search of an appointment, and he's been unable to figure out how to get a vaccine.

    "If I'm not able to get in through the normal channels, that means a lot of people like me are not getting in, and that's a big problem," he said.

    "I realize a big part of the problem is the lack of supply, but millions of people are being left on their own to navigate this disorganized mess," Plotkin added. "It's a free-for-all. What kind of system is that?" (St. Fleur, STAT News, 1/28; Hawkins, Washington Post, 1/28; Saslow, Washington Post, 1/27).

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