Hours on hold, website crashes: vaccine sign-up exasperates New Yorkers
By Sharon Otterman
Laura Engle, 78, lives alone in an apartment in Midtown Manhattan. She uses a walker and has a chronic lung disease. She is exactly the kind of person who most needs a coronavirus vaccine.
And yet, she has found it impossible to make an appointment and has become lost in the confusing system set up by the city and the state.
Computer-literate, she navigated New York City’s vaccine finder page Monday, found the closest provider and sent an email with her name and number to set up an appointment. When no one called, she reached out to the urgent care’s corporate office, which told her to wait.
She wanted to register at the new Javits Center megasite, which she heard about on the news, but couldn’t figure out how. Since it’s a state-run site, it does not show up on the city’s map.
“I’m willing to wait my turn,” she said, frustrated, “but I would like to have some feeling that I have a turn.”
Millions of elderly New Yorkers started the week with optimism that they would finally gain access to the vaccine after months of fearing they would fall victim to the coronavirus. But the reality of actually getting the shots has proved to be far more maddening.
Buggy websites, multiple sign-up systems that act in parallel but do not link together and a lack of outreach is causing exasperation and exhaustion among older New Yorkers and others trying to set up vaccination appointments. It is also stymying New York’s early efforts to get the vaccine to many of the city’s most vulnerable, creating a situation that elected officials say risks exacerbating the inequalities that COVID-19 has already laid painfully bare.
The race to vaccinate millions of New Yorkers has reached a critical point, as officials Wednesday announced that two cases of a more contagious British strain of the virus had been detected in New York City, one in Manhattan and one in Queens.
The state has used 35% of its available vaccine, in line with the national average in a rollout that has gone far slower than expected nationwide. New York City has distributed 34% of its shots, with 526,000 available doses as of Wednesday.
But in the race to get shots in arms, some say the bigger picture about exactly whose arms should be prioritized has been lost.
“Here we are, facing a global pandemic, with thousands of New Yorkers who have lost their lives, and who is again the forgotten group of people? The very people who need help the most,” said Mark Treyger, a city councilman from Brooklyn who said his office had been inundated with calls from family members trying to get appointments for their parents.
In New York City, more than 2 million residents now qualify for the vaccine, including over 1 million people older than 65 who became eligible this week. The city’s vaccine supply varies, with about 100,000 doses coming this week from the federal government, although some weeks it has received double that amount.
Even as the city and state rush to stand up a huge distribution network, there are increasing worries about supply, with essential workers — including teachers, police officers, transit workers and grocery store clerks — and people older than 65 racing to make appointments. About 25,000 shots per day are now being administered in the city.
“Right now, if we don’t get more vaccine, there literally will not be appointments available after the next couple of weeks,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a Wednesday news conference.
He called the frustrating sign-up system a smaller problem by comparison.
Several nonprofit social service organizations said that save for being given a script to read to people on a phone call, and a link to the same vaccine finder map that Engle was struggling with, they hadn’t been consulted.
“There is a big aging services network whose remit is to reach the poorest, oldest, least capacitated people,” said Ruth Finkelstein, executive director of the Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging at Hunter College. “But those agencies have not been central to the distribution strategy.”
In Jackson Heights, Roseline David, 80, a retired auditor, said she has been trying to get vaccination appointments for herself and her husband since Monday. She sent repeated messages to her regular doctor. She spent hours on the city’s website Tuesday night, painstakingly filling out forms, only to find out at the end that there was no availability and she had to cancel out of the system. She called 311 and is waiting for a call back.
“I’ve spent about 18 to 19 hours so far,” she said Wednesday. “I call this harassment. It affects my mental ability to do other things. And this is only for the first shot; who knows when the second shot is coming?”
Along with older New Yorkers, people who speak languages other than English are also disadvantaged, as well as those who cannot use a computer, Treyger and others said. There is a phone hotline, but hold times can be long.
A key issue is the disconnect between the city and the state’s systems for setting up appointments, which is leading to confusion on the ground.
At Hillcrest High School in Queens on Wednesday, a vaccination hub run by the city, a handful of people who had signed up via the state’s website were told by health department staff that they were in the wrong place and would have to go to a community health center located in a former firehouse about a half mile away.
Struggling with their phones, a few people failed to produce their appointment identification numbers for health workers, or a corresponding QR code that would confirm their appointments. Staff in blue vests helped sort out the confusion and, in some cases, scheduled appointments for people who thought they had already scheduled them.
“Some people don’t even have computers,” said Hilary Umans, who had brought her mother, Priscilla, for her vaccine. “What if you don’t have a smartphone? And what if you’re not a native English speaker?”
Dave Chokshi, the city’s health commissioner, said at a City Council oversight hearing Tuesday that to some extent, the separate sign-up systems cannot be helped: Each major player in the effort has separate medical records systems that vaccination schedules must link to. Each participating urgent care also has its own scheduling system, as do Costco, Rite Aid and dozens of other providers.
The city is trying to streamline the sign-up system to make it simpler, he said. But it has not yet announced how it will tackle the other huge challenges of how to get frail adults without transportation safely to vaccine appointments, and how to reach the city’s tens of thousands of homebound older New Yorkers.