That’s how long it took Terry Phillips to schedule an appointment to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I worked on it from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. at night,” Phillips, 80, told me. “My computer kept crashing. It would take five minutes to input all the data, and then it would crash. It was very frustrating.”
It’s been several weeks since New York state expanded COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to those 65 and over, but appointments remain elusive for many.
One big barrier is supply — New York needs more doses to meet the demand for a vaccine from a pandemic-weary populace eager to get inoculated.
But another, perhaps even bigger barrier, is the system for securing an appointment.
Those working to navigate it have encountered a confusing, at times labyrinthine process that requires patience, persistence and a certain amount of savvy.
As presently constructed, it’s a system that heavily favors computer-literate people with time on their hands and the ability to travel to far-flung state vaccination sites, although there have been some promising developments.
CVS announced this week that it would soon begin offering vaccines to seniors, and four pop-up vaccination clinics are planned for the Capital Region, with an emphasis on getting the vaccine to low-income public housing residents.
Still, my conversations with people who have either scheduled a vaccine appointment or are attempting to do so make it clear that the process is neither as easy or simple as it ought to be.
“I can’t seem to navigate the website,” one discouraged acquaintance, who lives in a rural part of Rensselaer County, told me. “I am 67 and have a few pre-existing conditions, but I’m ready to give up.”
In particular, the system is most likely to confound the elderly, vulnerable New Yorkers most at risk of dying from COVID-19.
“I don’t know how to get on the website,” Jane Stevenson, an 83-year-old resident of Ballston Spa, told me. “I have been calling all over. I’ve probably made between 10 and 20 phone calls.”
Stevenson has used the state’s COVID-19 vaccine hotline, but there have never been any open appointments when she’s called. She has also called pharmacies, and got her name on a list at a pharmacy in town, “but I wasn’t given an appointment or a date. At that point, they didn’t have any vaccines.”
Stevenson does have an appointment to get vaccinated in April at a state-run site in Utica that her daughter-in-law set up.
One of Phillips’ hopes is that Schenectady County will launch a program aimed at bringing the vaccine to homebound residents.
He compiled a list of shut-ins affiliated with First United Methodist Church in downtown Schenectady, where he serves as chair of the welcoming committee, and his Rotary Club, and sent them to the county.
“There are five people in my church who really need someone to come to their house and give them the shot,” said Phillips, a retired General Electric engineer. “These are very vulnerable people”
I agree with Phillips that vaccinating this highly vulnerable population should be a priority, and I suspect most people probably share this view.
So why isn’t more being done to reach them?
Schenectady County Manager Rory Fluman told me that the problem is the extremely limited vaccine supply, and that as soon as doses become available, the county will administer them to homebound residents.
“If we were given the supply, we could go tomorrow,” Fluman said, noting that the county has asked churches and low-income housing providers to provide lists of vulnerable residents who need the vaccine, so that it knows who these people are.
The county receives roughly 500 vaccine doses each week, and is vaccinating about 100 people a day at Schenectady County Community College.
“We can do 1,000 shots a day,” Fluman said. “We are set up and ready to go.”
Over 10,000 Schenectady County residents over 65 have pre-registered for the vaccine on the county website, but the county isn’t booking appointments for those people yet.
Instead, the focus continues to be vaccinating essential workers.
Once that process is complete, the county will begin contacting people on its pre-registration list and setting up appointments to get vaccinated.
Right now, pharmacies and state-run sites are open to those 65 and over, and the county website advises people not to “wait to get your vaccine from Schenectady County Public Health Services (SCPHS), even if you are pre-registered on our website. You should try to schedule an appointment somewhere else if you can.”
These different avenues for scheduling a vaccine make for a process that can be bewildering and overly complex.
One thing that might help is better communication from state and county officials explaining why it’s so hard to schedule a vaccine appointment, along with some tips on how to do it and where to look for open slots.
I’m hearing from more people who are getting vaccinated, so I know that more vaccines are getting into people’s arms.
And I haven’t heard one complaint about getting the vaccine – everyone I’ve spoken with says that aspect of the process is smooth and efficient, and that the mood at the sites is upbeat, even celebratory.
But getting to that point is enormously frustrating, and the state should do more to make the system accessible and friendly to all.
Saratoga Springs resident Andrea Wise is one of the lucky ones who managed to get vaccinated through a local pharmacy — a Price Chopper in Clifton Park.
“They had a half dozen openings,” said Wise, who likened trying to find an open slot to “playing a game of whack-a-mole.” “I felt like I’d won the lotto.”
Now that Wise has successfully navigated the process, “I’m hoping to help others get vaccinated.”
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.