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Vaccine appointment process a confusing, long headache for Washingtonians

(Marijan Murat/dpa via AP)

The COVID-19 vaccine may be the light at the end of the tunnel … but Washingtonians are reporting that the process to get it is like climbing through bushes of thorns to get through that tunnel.

Throughout the pandemic, the unemployed have talked of spending hours on the phone, day after day, trying to get through to a person who can help them. Booking a vaccine is so far looking to be a similar process.

On the day the state entered Phase 1B, Tier 1 — which includes people over 65 and those over 50 in multi-generational housing — Pauline Storino started trying to get an appointment for her 87- and 89-year-old parents. She called and reached out online to every clinic near her parents’ home in Ballard, but to no avail.

“When it came time for finding a vaccination site, that’s where everything just stopped,” she said. “So I did everything within a reasonable distance, but could not get anything.”

Where to get vaccinated in Washington state

The appointments she finally found are in Burien, a trek for the Ballard couple — and for nearly two months after she booked them. With providers like Swedish’s Seattle University clinic and Whidbey Health canceling appointments due to low supply, she is worried that her parents may not even get the vaccine in March.

“With all the things that you’re hearing now of sites closing because they don’t have availability, I’m just hoping that they’ll be able to get it then,” she said.

Storino wonders why the state would open up new vaccine sites when the chances of getting an appointment — at least, getting one quickly and easily — seem to her like winning the lottery.

“If they’re going to promote, ‘Get online and make your appointment,’ you should be able to get online and make your appointment in a reasonable amount of time, and not have it canceled,” Storino said. “It just seems like it’s kind of the cart before the horse.”

Alice Maxson of Seattle did get an appointment for her husband, but is still waiting on one for herself. She understands that doses are in short supply, but, like Storino, she wanted more information from the state.

“It looks to me like what’s happening is somewhat systematic. But of course, they’re not communicating very well,” she said. “They’re not saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do, so wait for your email.'”

Hospitals say they’re trying their best to plan vaccines around the supply they’ve been tending to get from the state each week, similar to how a restaurant plans how much food to order based on recent sales. But just as a restaurant cannot predict exactly how many customers will walk through the door each day, hospitals have to make their best guesses on how many vaccine doses each week’s shipment will contain.

“Knowing which product we’re going to get, knowing which supply we’re going to get on a week-to-week basis would really improve our ability to give out as much vaccine as possible,” said Dr. Shireesha Dhanireddy, a University of Washington Medicine physician at Harborview.

Ultimately, she said, she knows it’s hard, but if you’re in the UW system and called for an appointment, you’ll just have to wait for that call back.

“Just sit tight and wait for the call back, have patience with this process,” she advised.

She said the public can rest assured that the precious doses they do receive are not going to waste; they have a program to use doses in case of no-shows at appointments.

“We are giving it to people in-patient who meet that age criteria,” she said. “Our waste rate for usable doses is 0.01%.”

But until the state can send out more doses to the individual providers, they can only work with what they have.

The state government says the problem is that they’re still not getting nearly enough doses from the federal government.

“There are more than 800,000 Washingtonians today who are eligible for the vaccine but are not able to receive it, because we simply have not had enough doses provided yet from the federal government,” Governor Jay Inslee said during a press conference this week.

Governor Inslee noted that thanks to a change by President Biden this week, the weekly shipments will be increasing by 16% — from 100,000 to 116,000 over the next few weeks. It will help, he said, but we’re still looking at being in Phase 1B, Tier 1, for a couple of months.

Meanwhile, the state is also trying to figure out how to accommodate older people who don’t use the internet, since much of the process to prove you’re eligible for the vaccine and get an appointment is online.

“My parents are fortunate that they have my sister and me as advocates; my heart breaks for these elderly people who have nobody to help them,” Storino said. “My mom and dad could not do this on their own online. They do not have an email address, they’re 87 and 89.”

Governor Inslee said it’s up to us to do our part.

“A significant part of the rescue is by us, it’s taking care of our neighbors, our relatives, extending a hand to an older person,” Inslee said. “This is a moment in time where all of us can step up and help people.”

The state Department of Health says it’s reaching out to senior centers with vaccine information, and trying to get more done over the phone.

“We, including at DOH, had too many phone calls coming in, and so we’re working on establishing, making sure that our phone lines can handle the volume,” said Michele Roberts, acting assistant secretary of Prevention and Community Health.

These are actions Storino would like to have seen weeks ago. She’s fed up with the system, and also worried for her own safety because every day in Tier 1 is one more day she has to wait.

“I’m 60 years old and a teacher — we’ve been in-person at my school since mid-October,” she said. “I am more than ready to get in line.”

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