Vaccine rollout: Americans urged to 'hang tight' while booking appointments online

MarsBars/iStockBy SONY SALZMAN, VICTOR ORDONEZ and BOB WOODRUFF, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — With a growing number of Americans now eligible for the COVID-19 shot, many are experiencing long lines, broken websites and confusion about signing up.

The Trump administration recently urged states to start vaccinating adults older than 65, and also announced it will release all doses to the states rather than its prior strategy of reserving the second dose. The idea is that by the time people need that second dose, there will be more manufactured and already in stock.

The goal: to address the slower-than-expected rollout. So far, nearly 30 million doses have been sent to the states, but only 10 million of those first shots have been injected.

“It’s devastating. We have the greatest scientific achievement of our lifetimes in the development of this vaccine. And now all of a sudden, you know, we can’t get it to people,” said Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist and ABC News medical contributor.

Some public health experts say the decision to release more doses will help get more vaccines out into America’s cities and towns.

“This is a good move on Secretary Azar’s part,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health. “I think he’s responding to the Biden team, which last week said they were going to start releasing more vaccines. You know, we’re holding way too many doses back.”

But other experts caution supply isn’t really the problem.

“I don’t think flooding the market with a lot more vaccine is necessarily going to solve some of these problems,” said Brownstein.

Instead, Brownstein and others say the bottleneck is at the clinics, pharmacies and local health departments — which are often understaffed and potentially underfunded — that have been asked to embark on the nation’s largest-ever vaccination campaign.

“When you have hundreds and thousands of patients trying to get in queue and register and ensure that you have enough supply, you really hit a bottleneck,” said Danny Sanchez, vice president and general manager of Omnicell EnlivenHealth.

“It’s really the lack of information that is the primary pain point that we see across our care centers,” said Hari Prasad, CEO of Yosi Health. “In addition to that, people not knowing how to schedule or where to go to book their appointments, what information they need to carry with them. Those all add to the pain points as well, which is why we see lines that are sometimes four hours, eight hours long.”

Now, tech companies like Prasad’s Yosi Health and Sanchez’ Enliven Health are stepping in to try to help local health departments, hospitals and pharmacies try to cope with massive demand for these vaccines. But even these tech company executives admit that an online approach to booking appointments will be challenging for the nation’s elderly, or people with limited computer access.

“It’s hard to imagine my 95-year-old grandmother getting on a website trying to find a link,” said Sanchez.

Throughout the early vaccine rollout, even companies that were never designed to help manage a national vaccination campaign have been stepping in to help people book and manage their appointments.

“Social tools, especially the looking at appointment arenas … like Eventbrite or Survey Monkey or companies like Google and Apple – they are all prioritizing vaccine uptake as one of their real sort of corporate efforts,” Brownstein said.

The problem now, experts say, is that there’s not one centralized tool. Instead, people hoping to get a vaccine are left navigating dozens of different websites, many of which don’t have any available appointment slots, leaving some people sitting in front of their computers, refreshing their browsers.

But for those trying to navigate the process, tech experts interviewed by ABC News recommended a few simple steps.

First, ensure you can get online. If you don’t have the internet or have trouble navigating, find a friend or relative who can help — or call your primary care provider for guidance.

Once online, your first stop is your local public health department website. There, you should be able to see if you are eligible for the vaccine. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has nationwide recommendations for who is eligible, each state and county makes its own determination.

By visiting your city’s local public health department website, you should be able to learn whether you are eligible right now, or if you might have to wait a few weeks.

The next step is booking an appointment, which might be possible by following links on your health department’s website. But you also might have to more extensive research to find a doctor’s office, website, or hotline that will help you secure that slot.

And once you manage to secure an appointment, be prepared for a possible wait.

Public health specialists said it will likely soon get easier to make those appointments, thanks to a growing number of mass vaccination centers and the delivery of more doses every day.

And technology will improve, with better features and new, centralized clearinghouses.

“We run a platform called Vaccine Finder,” said Brownstein, “which is a government resource at the federal level that will go live in the coming weeks to allow people to figure out where they can go to get back into their communities.”

And Sanchez says his company hopes to soon prompt people when it’s their turn to get vaccinated.

Meanwhile, the incoming Biden administration has promised 100 million injections in the first 100 days in office.

“I think that there is intention to help clean up this mess in the next several weeks. And so, I would say if any of you have the ability to hang tight, try to keep doing the basic non-pharmaceutical interventions, I think we’re going to see in the coming weeks, months a real change in the way that we’re getting vaccines out to people,” Brownstein said.

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