Bethany Hamilton was working in the early hours of the morning when she stumbled upon the announcement.
Registration for coronavirus vaccination appointments would open on the Publix grocery store’s website at 6 a.m. She lives in Takoma Park, Md., but she’d been clicking through pages of the Georgia public health services website, hoping to secure vaccine appointments for her septuagenarian parents, who live in Gwinnett County, Ga., but every page she came upon said there were no more shots.
Her veteran father had already contacted the local Veterans Affairs hospital, which confusingly informed him that it did not yet have doses for someone his age. Things felt hopeless. “I really didn’t think I had any chance of getting something through for my parents,” Hamilton said. “I just wanted to give it a shot.”
She checked the time. She had about three hours.
“I was getting really sleepy and needed a little nap. So I set four alarms. If I’m going to do this and really give it a shot, I’m going to do it right,” she said.
Hamilton’s experience has been a common one as the federal government struggles to distribute the vaccine throughout the country. People are attempting to help parents and grandparents who are not digital natives book vaccination appointments. But finding one from afar and navigating the various vaccine sites’ online systems can be exasperating.
That morning‚ Hamilton’s fourth alarm went off at 5:55 a.m. The Publix website was already open on her laptop. She fired up a second page, this one in incognito mode. Then she pulled up two more browsers on her phone.
“Gwinnett County had a little over 1,500 appointments,” she said. “So I’m using my thumb on my phone and flipping between pages, and clicking through on the computer.”
Eventually, a message popped up that she could set an appointment. The catch: She needed her mom’s Medicare ID. “I’m like, oh dear God, it’s 6 in the morning. If I call her now, and the phone rings, both of my parents are going to think something terrible happened. We’re in a pandemic.”
Hamilton decided the call was worth it. To her surprise, her mother answered in a calm voice and gave her the ID number, and Hamilton entered it in with shaking fingers, waiting for the whole thing to crash. Then she tried to get a time for her father.
“I really don’t know how someone in their 70s or 80s or otherwise isn’t computer-savvy could handle all this,” she said. “I typed in all the information, and now the browser is doing that stupid thing where it tries to verify you’re not a robot. So I’m clicking the stupid images with the traffic lights, and I’m clicking the stupid images with the crosswalks. Meanwhile I’m watching the number of vaccines left dropping.”
Hamilton added, “I just can’t comprehend how this rat race is supposed to be humane.”
After going through her own cycle of repeatedly refreshing a browser to get past the first page, Jennifer Sullivan of Fairfax, Va., was able to get to the booking process for her parents, who live in Vestal, N.Y. After 20 minutes of answering questions, she finally reached what should have been the confirmation page – only to reach an error page instead.
“I had no idea if it went through or not,” she said. “I waited several hours. I kept asking my mom if she had gotten an email.”
Her parents were able to secure appointments the next day on their own, but Sullivan still worried. Her aunt, a nurse in western New York, had her first appointment canceled when her county ran out of doses.
“I check my hometown newspaper every day. I check the New York state website for any news of cancellations,” Sullivan said. “So far, so good, but you just don’t know.”
She also wonders whether her parents will somehow be penalized if the appointment confirmation did go through, and they do not show up on the right day. All of this confusion and anxiety has become the main topic of conversation with her friends.
“My group texts have really shifted from swapping horror stories about managing kids in virtual learning to getting vaccination appointments for our parents,” she said.
Samantha Ettus knows the feeling. When she first tried getting her 86-year-old father and his 74-year-old girlfriend appointments in Los Angeles, all the browser refreshing only led to open appointments for a second shot. When she ended up on the right booking page, she needed a verification code texted to her father’s phone. By the time he shared it with her, the page had timed out.
Eventually, she secured their appointments, and “they were over the moon,” she said. But when they arrived at the vaccination site a few days later, they were “told it was approximately a three-hour wait, and they would need to stand the entire time. Which for my 86-year-old father is really not an option.”
Crushed, they left the site and began the process all over again, securing two more appointments a week and a half later.
And all of that is just for the first dose. For some, there’s a problem of securing another.
Sharon Shakked and her septuagenarian parents live in the Bay Area, where vaccine appointments have been beyond scarce. After two weeks of “figuring out the systems, reading the county site, the state site, every medical center site” and consistently running two different computers, Shakked said, she was able to secure appointments for her parents.
“It’s been a full-time job to monitor each of the systems and what steps you needed to get appointments,” she said.
On Thursday, she brought her mom to get her first shot. To sign up for the second one, patients are supposed to scan a QR code on the wall, which brings up a registration app.
“I watched everyone who was there. The vast majority of folks were over 75, and they were struggling. They definitely did not know how to navigate this,” Shakked said. “There’s this inherent challenge, especially for this first-tier of folks who are not as tech-savvy and have trouble doing things very quickly. And if you don’t do it quickly, you lose the availability.”
“It shouldn’t be this way,” Shakked said. “It shouldn’t be this way at all.”