First page of new D.C. vaccine portal
Credit: Amanda Michelle Gomez

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The 5,750 appointments on and the call center today for the COVID-19 vaccine were filled within 10 minutes. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s chief of staff John Falcicchio said the 4,622 appointments dedicated to the portal were snatched in six minutes and 48 seconds. Unlike last week, D.C. residents did not appear to encounter crashes and error messages. This week’s tweaks to the portal worked.     

D.C. residents just have to use the first-come, first-serve portal and call center for one more day (on Friday). Next week, the Bowser administration is launching a new pre-registration system, where D.C. residents and workers will give DC Health information about themselves and eventually receive a notification by email, call, or text message letting them know to make an appointment. Everyone, regardless of what phase or tier they’re in, will be encouraged to pre-register. People will be asked demographic details, medical and COVID-19 history, and contact information when they register. They will always be able to pre-register for the vaccine after the system goes live, barring any maintenance needs for the portal or scheduled hours for call takers. 

“We still can only make appointments available as we know we will have vaccines available to support those appointments,” said DC Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt at a Thursday press conference. “We will continue to allocate appointment opportunities to those individuals who have the highest burden of disease in our community.” 

Seniors will be favored when DC Health starts sending notifications for appointments because their risk for serious illness from COVID-19 is higher. But residents 65 and older are not just getting vaccinated through the portal and call center, so opportunities will open for others when seniors get vaccinated elsewhere. DC Health will also weigh a person’s ZIP code, medical history, and employment against what phase and tier the District is in when sending notifications.

“People in priority ZIP codes that are 18 to 64 may get an appointment over a senior who does not necessarily live in a priority zip code because how we may be balancing vaccination coverage in those ZIP codes or geographic areas that have the greatest burden of disease,” Nesbitt offered as an example. 

So just because a person immediately pre-registers for an appointment when the system goes live doesn’t mean they’ll immediately receive a notification to book an appointment. “Chronology is the thing we will weigh the least,” said Nesbitt, when this reporter asked about how they’ll weigh the date of registration. “Just because you go into the system the first day that it opens doesn’t mean you are going to be the first person to get a vaccine appointment.” A spokesperson for the mayor says to expect more operational details next week.    

The last few weeks of technical difficulties with eclipsed the good news—D.C. has vaccinated tens of thousands of people and its supply from the federal government is only increasing. And a third vaccine, developed by Johnson & Johnson, was just cleared by the Food and Drug Administration for use in adults 18 and older; D.C. is receiving 6,000 doses of the new vaccine. There are some differences among the three vaccines D.C. has—from storage requirements to age restrictions—but the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines all have proven to protect against serious illness of COVID-19. This time last year, the D.C. government hadn’t even reported its first COVID-19 case, but officials were preparing for the worst. On March 3, 2020, Bowser held her first press conference on the coronavirus. On March 4, 2021, Bowser is holding a presser on vaccines.      

Nearly a year after the health department reported its first COVID-19 case, on March 7, DC Health reported that nearly one-tenth of D.C. residents are partially or fully vaccinated, as of Feb. 27. The vaccine rollout hasn’t been without problems, including the fact that residents west of the Anacostia River are getting vaccinated at higher rates than those living east of the river. But news about efficiency may not be as bad as some make it out to be. Take for instance the Bloomberg tracker on vaccinations nationwide: D.C. ranks nearly last in supply used. As of this morning, the tracker had D.C. using 65 percent of its vaccine shipment. The tracker, like many circulating on the internet, pulls data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Like City Paper has previously reported, the tracker doesn’t jive with DC Health’s data. 

In a conference call with the Council on Wednesday, DC Health’s vaccine lead Dr. Ankoor Shah explained why D.C.’s supply-used rate is very low in trackers like Bloomberg’s: CDC reported 280,000 first and second doses were delivered to D.C., last Shah checked, but DC Health reported receiving 240,000. Where did those 40,000 doses go? The CDC includes shipments to federal entities, like the U.S. Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs, in D.C.’s total delivered doses. DC Health obviously has no control over those doses and doesn’t really have insight into their processes. But were any of the 240,000 doses just sitting on the shelf? “When we look at inventory, we do find doses that haven’t moved mainly in our hospitals,” Shah said. He estimates roughly 4,000 to 5,000 doses weren’t moving due to weather delays and logistical obstacles. He also said tens of thousands of doses are “underreported,” meaning some providers struggle to provide timely information about doses administered. Health centers and pharmacies are also hesitant to have their inventory go down to zero, because they want to have some kind of buffer in the event that something comes up.    

“I don’t think we’ll ever get to a point where we are above 80 percent, especially as we are confirming everybody who’s had a first dose has a second dose waiting for them,” Shah told the Council. As of Feb. 27, 82 percent of D.C.’s first doses were administered.  

Given that more and more people are getting vaccinated and COVID-19 cases are trending down from the holiday surge, the Bowser administration is considering easing restrictions around outdoor activities. “If the trends that we have been seeing in decline are able to continue and be sustained up to the period of mid-March,” said City Administrator Kevin Donahue in Wednesday’s Council call, “that’s enough time that would have elapsed that DC Health has advised us that they’d be comfortable with us examining where the reopening dial is for some parts of our societal functions.” Donahue said they’d be looking at “low-hanging fruit” or lower-risk activities like restrictions around fields. Bowser announced Thursday that there is a tentative plan to resume high school sports in phases beginning March 15. “We emphasize tentative,” Bowser said. Nevertheless, experts caution lifting restrictions around riskier activities.

— Amanda Michelle Gomez (tips?

This story has been updated with additional information from Bowser and Nesbitt’s March 4 press conference.

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