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How has vaccine scheduling been going for people over 75 in Connecticut?

Depending on who over age 75 you ask about the process of scheduling a COVID-19 vaccine appointment, you might hear "piece of cake," "seamless" or "we have no complaints at all," or you might hear "abysmal failure," "very frustrating" or that it's like "being a passenger on the Titanic during the confusion that ensued after the ship hit the iceberg."

These were some of the comments from more than 50 seniors — or people helping their parents — who shared their experience via The Day's website, email, Facebook, voicemail or a phone interview. Just over half of respondents had a negative experience, while the rest were positive or relatively neutral.

Gov. Ned Lamont announced Jan. 14 that appointment scheduling opened up for people over 75, who the state put at the beginning of Phase 1b of vaccine distribution.

Most who found the process easy did it online, either through their MyChart account or the Vaccine Administration Management System, also known as VAMS. But many who struggled also tried to get an appointment online.

"People should not assume that everyone has a smartphone, a computer, has access to the internet. A lot of us are elderly and technologically challenged," said Norwich resident Joanne Philbrick, 78. After she tried calling and couldn't get through, she went to MyChartPLUS through Hartford HealthCare and finally got an appointment for Feb. 18 in Norwich.

Multiple people noted that when they tried to make an appointment online, they would repeatedly click on different times only to find each one wasn't available.

State officials have been urging patience, considering Connecticut has about 277,000 people over age 75 but only gets about 45,000 doses per week, which are also still going to health care workers and people in long-term care facilities.

How and where to schedule an appointment

There are three main ways for people over 75 to schedule an appointment: On VAMS, through a health system such as Hartford HealthCare or Yale New Haven Health, or by calling the CT COVID Vaccine Appointment Assist Line at (877) 918-2224.

People can use VAMS to schedule a vaccine at a few places in southeastern Connecticut:
• Community Health Center — 1 Shaws Cove, New London
• Rose City Senior Center — 8 Mahan Drive, Norwich (through Uncas Health District)
• City of Groton Municipal Building — 295 Meridian St. (through Ledge Light Health District)

Ledge Light Director Steve Mansfield said Friday afternoon that the health district just found out it's getting 300 doses next week, which is 100 fewer than requested but 100 more than this past week. He said Ledge Light will decide Monday when next week's clinics will be and then post them on VAMS.

Patrick McCormack, director of Uncas Health District, said some seniors need a lot of help navigating the confusing online VAMS system. At the Rose City Senior Center, employees from Norwich Public Utilities and Senior Center Director Michael Wolak have been assisting patrons to register, set up necessary email addresses and arrange for second-dose appointments.

Norwich residents can call the senior center at (860) 889-5960 on Jan. 26 or Jan. 27 to schedule an appointment with a Norwich Human Services or Norwich Public Schools worker, who will remotely help them set up an email account, if they don't have one, and enroll in VAMS.

As for the second option of going through a health system: Hartford HealthCare says that call centers "are experiencing high volume, so the easiest way to schedule an appointment is through MyChartPLUS" at mychartplus.org, but those who want to schedule their appointment by phone can call (860) 827-7690 or toll-free at (833) 943-5721. Hartford HealthCare has a clinic at its 11 Stott Ave. location in Norwich, across from Dodd Stadium.

For Yale New Haven Health, one can also schedule an appointment through MyChart at mychart.ynhhs.org. The Yale New Haven Health COVID-19 Call Center number, (833) 275-9644, has an automated message with an option to schedule a vaccine appointment.

In southeastern Connecticut, YNNH has vaccine sites in New London at its 194 Howard St. site and at Mitchell College, 47 De Biasi Drive. It also has one in Old Saybrook at 633 Middlesex Turnpike.

For both Hartford HealthCare and YNNH, a person over 75 doesn't need to be a patient or have an existing MyChart account to sign up.

As for the final option, calling (877) 918-2224, the state says that due to high call volume, this is only recommended for people who cannot use VAMS or a provider.

Many find frustration

Groton resident Nancy Murphy said that last Thursday, someone from her doctor's office gave her the hotline number. After an hour waiting on the phone, she said a recording came on that someone would call back within 24 hours.

Murphy, 84, said that Saturday afternoon, she got a call back saying shots were available at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, and others have been told the same thing. But she only drives locally.

Groton resident Rita Schmidt, 90, said after multiple tries, she got an appointment in New London on March 11. She said she could have had an earlier appointment in East Hartford but has no desire to drive there in the snow.

Carol Ort said Thursday she's been trying unsuccessfully to get an appointment for her 79-year-old father, who lives in Gales Ferry. Unable to make an appointment on MyChart, she called the MyChart support line at (860) 972-4993. She was given the option to get a return call within 24 hours, but after four days, she hadn't gotten a call back.

Mystic resident Maggie Favretti was frustrated that her parents, ages 86 and 88, couldn't get appointments at the same time: Her mother's is in mid-February while her father's is in March.

"For people who are old, this is such a byzantine system, because there's no reason for my father to have a MyChart; he's not ever going to use it," Favretti said.

Uncasville resident Jim Harmon, 83, said he and his wife got appointments scheduled for Feb. 2 and Feb. 4 at the Stott Avenue site in Norwich, and had to create MyChartPLUS accounts to do so.

"It would be nice if you could call and talk to somebody," he said.

Maura Fitzgerald, spokesperson for COVID-19 matters for the state Department of Public Health, said in an email Friday, "There are multiple elements of the CDC's VAMS platform that are short of our expectations and we share the frustrations that many have shared. This is why we stood up a call center through the United Way which has handled thousands of calls and we empowered providers to book appointments directly while we work with the CDC to make VAMS more user-friendly."

Some find success

Waterford resident Richard Dudek, 75, said a family member who is a nurse texted him about signing up through Hartford HealthCare online when "it really hadn't been announced to the world yet," so he scheduled an appointment on Jan. 12 and got vaccinated the next day in Norwich.

Stephen Forbes of Norwich scheduled his appointment last Thursday or Friday through MyChartPLUS and got vaccinated Tuesday in Norwich. Forbes, 77, said he already had a MyChart account, checking in at the Stott Avenue facility was simple and he has his second dose scheduled for Feb. 9.

Mystic resident Don Rich, 76, said he went on VAMS last Wednesday or Thursday and got vaccinated Sunday in New London. He said the nurse there told him to go back on VAMS to schedule his second dose.

Rich got the Moderna vaccine, and recipients are supposed to get the second dose about 28 days after the first, but Rich said he couldn't get an appointment until March 20 — at first. He went back on another day, canceled his appointment and got one for Feb. 12 at Mitchell College.

"Right now, it's very difficult to find an appointment that's 28 days from the date you were vaccinated, so you try to find the nearest date thereafter," said Mansfield, of Ledge Light, noting that people getting the Moderna vaccine shouldn't be vaccinated prior to 28 days. The time between doses for the Pfizer vaccine is 21 days.

New London resident Ron Johnson said he already had MyChart, and he got an email from Yale New Haven Health on Jan. 15 saying he could sign up for an appointment. That day, he made a Feb. 1 appointment at the 194 Howard St. site.

Hope Brayton last week made an appointment for her 83-year-old mother, who has Alzheimer's and lives with her in Mystic. The appointment was Thursday at the Rose City Senior Center.

"When she got her shot, I watched the thing go into her arm, I had this incredible welling up of emotion and began crying," Brayton said. "It was such a relief."

Afterward, she said they went into another corner of the room and sat for 15 minutes, the recommended time to make sure one doesn't have an adverse reaction.

Groton resident Frank Rybicki, 76, first called scheduling a "piece of cake," but then gave the caveats that he has 60 years' experience designing and delivering software, and that he generally has "very, very low expectations" for government websites.

Rybicki said he went on VAMS on Jan. 16 and two days later got an email with a registration link. He first set the search radius at five miles and had the opportunity to schedule an appointment in New London on March 18, but he expanded the radius and got one in Old Saybrook on Jan. 23.

His advice to those who aren't as computer savvy? "Get a high school kid that's computer literate and have them help you walk through."

e.moser@theday.com

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