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Tipsters, tech-savvy kids, pharmacy hopping: How Americans are landing coronavirus vaccines

Four days into her coronavirus vaccine hunt, Ramona Cohen struck out again. 

The Safeway in her Washington, D.C., neighborhood had no doses left after its last Thursday appointment. She still had four pharmacies left to try to a tip from her mail carrier that a grocery store a few miles away was giving away leftover vaccine.

It was another frustrating day in a quest that started Monday, when the city opened registration to those 65 and older. Cohen spent 12 hours that day making futile attempts to book appointments by phone and online, only to be foiled by messages saying no appointments were available or interminable waits on hold. When a health department employee who eventually did pick up suggested she call back the next day, Cohen jokingly vented that she doesn't even buy green bananas.

"You don't know what tomorrow brings. We don't have much time left," Cohen, 75, said. "I consider myself old as it is, and I want to keep going."

Millions of American seniors are engaged in similarly frantic hunts for the coronavirus vaccine they qualify to receive - but only if they can get their hands on it.

The expanded availability of the two authorized coronavirus vaccines has unleashed a free-for-all among pandemic-weary Americans clamoring for lifesaving protection and a return to some type of normalcy.

Those searching for a shot face a decentralized system of vaccine distribution operated by cash-strapped public health departments and a disparate network of clinics and medical providers, all crushed by unprecedented demand for a shield against the virus decimating American life.

While many Americans have had no problem getting shots, others like Cohen have spent hours trying to get vaccinated, to no avail. The challenges in vaccinating people mirror the botched rollout of coronavirus testing as a mix of government and private providers navigate unfamiliar terrain while communicating with the public in different ways.

Some vaccine appointment websites crashed almost as soon as they launched. Older Americans are enlisting their kids and grandchildren to stay on the phone and keep refreshing websites until they land an appointment. Tiny intelligence networks are forming around the country to scour for morsels of information on how to get a leg up on the vaccine search.

Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers, said these struggles are unavoidable as the federal government defers distribution to localities without the resources to create a centralized sign-up for vaccines or to hold mass inoculation drives.

"In any way you slice it, the supply is just so limited right now and the number of seniors is so large that there's no perfect way to do it," Hannan said in an interview. "It's going to take time for everyone to get vaccinated, and it's impossible to schedule everybody at once."

At least 11 million people have received a dose of a coronavirus vaccine so far, according to Washington Post data. The Trump administration has urged states to start vaccinating everyone 65 and older as the pace of injections lag far behind targets. But some experts and health authorities warn the attempt to speed up distribution could lead to false hope and an even more overburdened public health system.

"Ultimately, what we're concerned about is there's just not that strong of a supply of vaccine right now," said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. "People have been led to believe there's vaccine out there, and we're going to open up the priority scheme. As a result, you now have a lot of people who have been led to believe that the vaccine is available, who are going out and getting in all these lines."

Some have uncovered creative paths to success in their quests for vaccination.

A 72-year-old Atlanta woman secured coveted vaccinations for herself, her husband and her sister after refreshing her iPhone, iPad and laptop simultaneously until the online appointment page finally loaded.

A 69-year-old retired special education teacher expecting to wait for months lucked out when a central California coast hospital offered extra doses to former volunteers and their loved ones.

A healthy Arkansas man in his mid-30s cut ahead of senior citizens thanks to a family friend who was a pharmacist running a clinic with more doses than patients.

"Personal contacts are unfortunately filling the information void. That has helped me rationalize jumping ahead because I don't really want to wait for my state to figure out how to be efficient with administering the vaccines," said the man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid social repercussions. "I am a wealthy white man, so I do feel guilt that my privilege is definitely giving me another advantage in this world, but at the end of the day, I'm making a decision that I think will keep my family safe."

The start of vaccinations for senior citizens and some essential workers was an early stress-test of mass inoculation drives for the general public. They were quickly overwhelmed.

Maricopa County, the largest in Arizona, upgraded its servers before launching an online portal that promptly crashed. Some Florida counties turned to Eventbrite, a website usually used to find bar crawls and book clubs, to organize vaccination drives. Macomb County in Michigan reported 100,000 hits in the first five minutes of its online system, which was set up to schedule 4,200 appointments.

"Unfortunately, there is not a system in the world that could accommodate that type of volume," county executive Mark A. Hackel wrote in an email to residents.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to encourage people to use VaccineFinder as a national resource for finding shots, but a public search function has not launched while supplies are still limited.

In the meantime, some jurisdictions allow people to leave their name on a waiting list, allowing them to avoid the nonstop flurry of calls and emails dominating vaccine searches elsewhere. But others are banking on being able to break through the logjam with persistence.

Bryce Covert, a New York City writer, has been waking up at dawn daily to help her 67-year-old mother on Long Island secure an appointment since Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced senior citizens would be eligible for vaccines.

But the task is not as simple as booking a flight. The state website directed her to several small medical facilities offering the vaccines, but their online appointment system had error messages and their listed phone numbers led to recordings saying they were out of supply. Covert has spent hours waiting on hold on a state hotline but has yet to speak to a person. By Friday, the small sites were no longer listed and the website for a newly added university hospital hasn't functioned all morning.

"It feels like I'm trying to get a Beyoncé ticket," Covert said. "It feels like I'm fighting bots on TicketMaster."

The stakes are higher for Covert's mother than watching a concert. She wants to reunite with her 95-year-old mother who lives in Colorado and has a rapidly deteriorating memory. They called off their last visit in March when the first wave of coronavirus shutdowns started.

After six hours of intermittent refreshing Friday afternoon, Covert secured her mother a Feb. 3 vaccination slot. Covert is hoping for an easier time booking the second shot, allowing her mother to celebrate her grandmother's 96th birthday in late March.

Those who prevailed in their online appointment hunts said an early start was key to success.

Courtney McAlexander, 35, was working from home in Clarksdale, Miss., on Tuesday afternoon when she picked up a call from her mother. Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves had just announced that senior citizens and those with underlying medical conditions, like McAlexander, who has Type 1 diabetes, now qualify for the vaccine.

That launched a seven-hour blitz for McAlexander and her husband, Kevin Lewellyn, 37, to claim the precious appointments.

"Our millennial skills kicked in and the years of when we were younger trying to get concert tickets from Ticketmaster," said Alexander. "The website would go down, the website would come back up, and we were just essentially clicking anything we could click to try to get appointments, and we slowly but surely got appointments for myself, my mother and both of his parents."

They were the lucky ones. The next day, Mississippi announced it had run out of vaccines and could no longer book appointments. The state signed up 52,000 people for shots over the next two weeks.

Reeves told The Post that the high volume was a good sign of widespread interest in the vaccine.

"Even though we certainly had short term challenges, people were willing to do everything they could to either get an appointment online or get through to the call center," said Reeves, who ordered National Guard staffed drive-through vaccination sites to speed up distribution. "When you flood any system, it's going to lead to challenges, challenges that we recognize and are now fixing."

Instead of enduring crashing websites and hold music, other vaccine hunters opted to get offline and take their hunt into the real world.

Glee Noble of Bloomington, Ind., who turns 79 this month, figured she had no chance of getting a shot since the state is prioritizing those older than 80. She would periodically check the state website hoping they would lower the age threshold.

But her 72-year-old asthmatic boyfriend decided to stop waiting and walked two blocks to a county vaccination site at a medical office. He came back vaccinated and urged her to try, too. She lucked out as one of six to receive leftover doses at the end of the day.

"I'm a - knock on wood - fairly healthy almost 79-year-old, and there were people there who were with walkers and wheelchairs and I thought, 'Oh, I'm a healthy person. I shouldn't be getting this. People who are frail should be getting this,' " Noble recalled.

But she feels less guilty when she remembers hearing nurses fret they wouldn't vaccinate enough people and would have to keep caring for a crush of COVID-19 patients.

Hannan, of the immunization managers group, said the stories of leftover doses suggests broad vaccine networks are hampering, rather than helping, distribution.

"We are seeing the more we spread out the doses to different private sector providers, the less opportunity we have to have large scale vaccination and make sure every dose is used," Hannan said.

Joel Alpert, a Michigan attorney, tried getting his vaccine appointment by checking daily on a government website. His eyes lit up when he finally saw an available slot at 9:20 a.m. Except the facility was 20 miles away, and his clock read 9:14 a.m.

He turned to a network of friends, relatives and fellow Jewish senior citizens in the Detroit suburbs who would text and email each other tips. Acting on one, Alpert drove 35 minutes to a hospital he heard was processing in-person applications and found an employee holding hundreds of forms. He got a callback offering a Sunday appointment the next day.

"I don't think that getting a vaccination should be based upon luck or ploys or schemes," Alpert, 68, said. "I assumed our federal government had some sort of plan, a plan that had been in existence all along. I figured it would be like a military war game that they would be ready for this eventuality."

In the District, Cohen was determined to find a vaccine - somewhere, anywhere. She has a cousin who has cancer, and she would like to visit her. She has a family function in Arizona in April, but she doesn't want to get on a plane until she's been vaccinated.

She misses going to her synagogue. She misses hugs. So Cohen, who works at a law firm, continued to plot new strategies.

On Friday afternoon, she hit a downtown Giant supermarket, where an employee told her they had tossed three unused vials the night before. Cohen took her spot behind one person also hoping for leftovers, and soon the queue grew to about 20.

After the last appointment, the pharmacy had two doses left - and finally, on day five of her quest, Cohen got her shot.

"I'm so relieved. It overcame any of the despair and the frustration," she said shortly after. "But I feel bad for everybody else who can't get it."

 

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