Crashed appointment websites. Long lines. Midnight alarms set to book a time before the morning rush. And hours spent waiting on hold, in calls made by those who don’t have — or struggle with — internet access.
Millions of Washington residents are doing whatever it takes to navigate the state’s labyrinth-like rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine program, which in large part relies on the hospital system. The hospitals, too, have been vexed by an unreliable supply of vaccine and ever-changing rules about who qualifies for the shots, and how and where to receive them.
More than 1 million people in Washington are age 65 and older, making them eligible for the injection, along with health care workers, first responders and residents and staff of long-term care facilities, as well as people over 50 who live in multigenerational households.
But the state only receives 100,000 new doses each week, and where the doses will go is unpredictable even as the federal government says it will increase the state’s allotment by 16% in the coming weeks. When the state changed its age eligibility threshold from 70 to 65 earlier this month, it added nearly 400,000 people alone.
In short: Far more people are eligible for the two-dose vaccine than the number of doses available. As of Monday, 455,218 people statewide had received their first dose, and 86,269 are fully vaccinated, according to the Washington State Department of Health.
With less supply, “it is going to take time, which will require patience from all of us,” Dr. Umair Shah, the state’s secretary of health, said last week when the state opened four mass-vaccination sites across the state. On Friday, none of the four sites had any open appointments.
With a significant shortage and a decentralized system of providers, older adults — who account for a disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths — are left largely on their own as they seek an end to the impacts of the nearly yearlong pandemic.
“This is life and death, and from the public standpoint, they are taking this very seriously,” said Walt Bowen, president of the Washington State Senior Citizens Lobby. “People are under a lot of tension because we’ve been locked down, and it’s a stressful time for everybody. They’re concerned, and they don’t know where to turn.”
Hundreds of readers responded when The Seattle Times asked for stories about trying to get vaccinated. Taken together, their experiences highlight rising levels of desperation to find an appointment, and frustration when the attempts are unsuccessful.
For those who do land a slot, their stories range from finding a sole appointment at a neighborhood pharmacy, to driving 90 miles and taking a ferry to reach a site, only to be told the supply had run out and they would have to go somewhere else.
For some, frustrations were further inflamed this week by news that multiple health-care systems had offered vaccines to people of influence, like donors and board members, while not providing the same access to members of the public.
No tech access
Pat Passamonte is 93 and her husband is 90. They live in a mobile home park in Poulsbo that’s for residents 55 and older, although most of the residents are at least 70.
They meet the criteria for who is most vulnerable to COVID-19 and who should be prioritized for vaccine. But Passamonte and her husband haven’t been able to secure a slot to get the injection. The couple — like about a quarter of older adults nationwide — don’t have internet access. In their mobile home park, only one out of more than 100 residents has been vaccinated, according to Passamonte.
“It seems like these pods of seniors have been ignored,” she said. “We have a clubhouse, a place where they could set it up. But I guess there’s too many people.”
Instead, Passamonte’s daughter, Lynn Arthur, has been scouring different providers online to see if anything is available in Kitsap County, to no avail.
She’s not alone in the rush. When Kitsap County opened registration for the county’s first community vaccination clinic, in Bremerton, all the slots for the week filled up within 35 minutes, said Dave Rasmussen of Kitsap County’s Joint Information Center.
Arthur has checked at Safeway and St. Michael Medical Center, but none have appointments in the near future. She’s tried at 2 a.m. to see if any slots opened up for her mother and stepfather.
“Without me, they would have no options,” said Arthur, who lives on Bainbridge Island. “There’s no other options. If you don’t have internet access or if you aren’t savvy about using the internet, forget it. There’s just no way for them to access appointments.”
Shirley Mace was given a phone number from her doctor’s office to call regarding COVID-19 vaccines, but she’s never been able to get through. At 83, she doesn’t have a computer or smartphone, and doesn’t drive.
“I’ve called and called and called,” she said. “I don’t know what to do.”
Overall, about 90% of adults use the internet, but the rate among adults over 65 lags significantly behind other age groups, according to the Pew Research Center. About 27% of people older than 65 don’t use the internet, compared with 12% of adults 50-64 and 3% or less for adults younger than 49.
Lower-income groups, people with lower educational attainments and communities in rural areas are also less likely to use the internet compared to others, according to Pew.
“I think people think everyone has a computer, but I’m someone who doesn’t have one,” said Mace, who lives in Renton.
Robert Nielsen, 73, set about getting an appointment for his 86-year-old aunt, who does not own a computer or a cellphone. He thought she would be vaccinated through her senior-living apartment community, but no.
“She was trying like crazy,” he said. “All she could do was call the hospital, but each time she called, they would say, ‘Call back tomorrow.’ ”
He finally got her an appointment at a Swedish Medical Center vaccination clinic being held at Seattle University. He went to the site the day before to figure out logistics, and saw older people pushing their relatives in wheelchairs, thinking appointments weren’t necessary, and being turned away.
“That’s got to be devastating,” he said.
A lack of clarity about how to get the vaccine, along with stories of back-channel attempts to procure one, abound.
While doing an online presentation, Ellen Snyder, a nurse at Northshore Senior Center’s Adult Day Health, heard from participants and their families who said they assumed their doctor would call them and let them know when a vaccine was available. One man made an appointment with his doctor at the VA, thinking he would get the shot then. But when he arrived, he was told he would have to go online to get a time, Snyder said.
She’s also heard from patients about the different ways they went about finding doses. One person, she said, followed a pharmacy team to an assisted-living facility, then asked when they came back out if there were any extra doses.
Walter and Hilda Kicinski, both 76, live with their son, daughter-in-law and two granddaughters, and want to get vaccinated so the girls can return to in-person classes at Holy Rosary School in West Seattle. Until then, they’re all at home.
The Kicinskis tried to get into the Virginia Mason/Amazon vaccination event last Sunday. Nothing there. They registered at the University of Washington Medical Center site, hoping for a call back. Nothing there, either, nor at several other clinics or hospitals listed near their home.
Walter Kicinski has gotten close, though. He was on the Swedish site and saw one appointment left. But as he entered his information, “it disappeared in front of my eyes,” he said, “and there was nothing for the remaining days.”
Kicinski has logged into the sites at 12:30 a.m., hoping to beat the morning rush, but that didn’t work. He decided to look further afield, and scrolled through the state website listing vaccination locations.
“I clicked on anything on the assumption that we could make a day of it,” he said. Still no appointments.
“The frustrating part about this is that we have friends in Texas and Arizona who get calls from their health-care providers with vaccines at the ready,” Kicinski said. “And we’re playing internet roulette trying to score an appointment. It’s massively frustrating.”
Some older adults, like Passamonte, are relying on tech-savvy and diligent family members to secure appointments. Susan Gleason’s parents, who are both 85, didn’t want to make any fuss, which left the role of finding a vaccine to Gleason and her siblings.
But even as a health-care worker who knows the system — and vaccinates children as part of her job — Gleason, who lives in Seattle, was at wit’s end trying to get her parents appointments.
“I was kind of incredulous that it was up to us,” Gleason said. “They had just seen their primary-care physician. They know who is the most elderly, who has the most comorbidity.
“You would think there would be some outreach.”
Her mother, who is familiar with her health system’s online portal, got bumped out more than once. She tried her phone, but that didn’t work. So Gleason and her daughter had to drive over, mask up, open a different browser and answer a 14-question survey to get to the appointment scheduling site, which finally worked.
“But would my mom be able to figure that out?” Gleason asked.
Gleason compared it to procuring a Sony PlayStation around Christmas. Everywhere she tried, there was nothing.
She finally posted to Facebook: “Why is this so hard?” Friends in similar circumstances echoed her feelings again and again. They had engaged family, boyfriends, anyone who had the time, to help navigate the system.
“But what about the people who don’t have resources like that?” Gleason asked. “Because it’s taxing my skill set. And I am in health care, so I know how this works.”
Her parents are set up for vaccines, thanks to her “dogged advocacy.”
“But you just know that there are people we are missing,” she said. “And I worry about them.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name Dr. Umair Shah, Washington state’s secretary of health.