Credit: Photo illustration by Julia Terbrock

DC Health began booking COVID-19 vaccination appointments for residents 65 and older on Monday. It took less than 24 hours for all 6,700 available appointments this week to fill up. The department is now advising residents to sign up for email and text message alerts at vaccinate.dc.gov to learn when they should revisit the website or call (855) 363-0333 to book an appointment if they weren’t able to do so on the first day of sign-ups. 

“It is good news that there is such demand,” says DC Health. “The appointment slots are based on available vaccine. If they sign up for email alerts, they will be notified when there is more availability in the schedule or when the next week opens up.”

Many elderly residents were eager to get their first shot of the vaccine, which is free for everyone, including individuals without health insurance. The way District officials described how booking an appointment would be were at odds with some seniors’ experiences. 

“Very simple. It should take only five minutes on the phone,” said Mayor Muriel Bowser Monday during a press conference about vaccinations. 

“We can handle the call volume. The website can handle the appointment scheduling,” said DC Health director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt

67-year-old Robin Shuster and her husband, who is 78, weren’t able to schedule an appointment on Monday. She and her husband spent hours on the website and phone trying. “They’ve gone through this with health care workers. I would think they have the kinks worked out but it felt kind of glitchy,” says Shuster of the website. “At the same time if this gets worked out within a week, that’d be great.”   

Shuster and a handful of elderly residents City Paper spoke with shared their frustrations in trying to book an appointment. Booking online can be tedious given that they have to select each provider to learn if any had availability. They wish the website only showed providers with available time slots. The website also does not save their information, requiring them to type everything out again every time their efforts proved unsuccessful. Residents describe long wait times by phone. 75-year-old Ramona Cohen waited on the phone for two hours only to be disconnected when a representative answered. Eventually, she was instructed to check back again. “When you are 75 years old, tomorrow is not an option,” she says. “We don’t know about tomorrow. That’s why we don’t buy green bananas.”  

Seniors also wish they knew how often to check the website, so they don’t spend all their time doing so.

The office of Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh says it too heard from frustrated seniors. One told Cheh’s office that they successfully made an appointment, receiving a confirmation email. However, when they arrived at the site, the pharmacist said they had no record of their appointment. Some residents also told Cheh’s office they had signed up for vaccine alerts last week, but did not receive one on Monday about availability. A contact at Senior Villages also told Cheh’s office the website went down several times on Monday. 

Others, like 74-year-old Susan Berger, successfully booked an appointment on Tuesday at Hattie Holmes Senior Wellness Center, roughly five miles from her home in American University Park. “I booked online and asked for locations within 25 miles of my house…it isn’t easy,” she said via email. Her first appointment at a Safeway pharmacy was canceled. She showed up at Hattie Holmes Senior Wellness Center about an hour before her scheduled appointment at 10:45 a.m. She says 20 people were already in line before the center opened.   

In a phone call after her vaccination, Berger sounded elated. “It was quite wonderful,” she says. The vaccination itself took 10 seconds. The provider told her to come back Feb. 9 for her second shot.  

The District estimates there are 84,960 residents over 65. Seniors are worried about the pace of vaccinations. But DC Health has repeatedly said their pace is incumbent on the federal government’s allotment. One federal official tells Axios the Trump administration is just trying to speed up vaccinations by no longer holding any doses for second shots. 

D.C. has received praise so far for its vaccination rollout. Some health experts have commended DC Health’s wastage policy of having providers vaccinate anyone who is available and willing should they run up against the vial’s expiration date. Strict prioritization policies elsewhere have led providers to throw away unused vaccines, while at least three major D.C. providers have reported zero wastage about a month into vaccinations.   

As of Monday, DC Health reports that 26,672 people have received their first dose. The vaccination data is incomplete because not all providers are reporting to the agency. It is unclear how many of D.C.’s 85,100 health care workers and 1,260 nursing home residents have gotten their first shot. (The city’s health care workers, who mostly do not live in the District, could be vaccinated in their home states.) Experts warned vaccinating health care workers, along with long-term care residents and staff, would be the easy part. The experience of elderly residents shows how complicated vaccinating the general population will be. D.C. will move through the phases based on vaccine availability and a demand among the tier.         

—Amanda Michelle Gomez (tips? agomez@washingtoncitypaper.com

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