But finding an appointment may be a shot in the dark
By Kathy Knotts & Krista Pfunder
The arrival of the coronavirus vaccine is a reason to cheer 2021. After all, widespread vaccination is the key to ending the COVID-19 pandemic and getting our lives back.
But the first available doses of the vaccine in our region have come with a dose of confusion: Who is eligible now? How can I get an appointment? Where can I go to be vaccinated? Amid a slow rollout with confusing messages, many people in Chesapeake Country are left to stalk websites, sign up in multiple locations, and wait for the county and state’s next moves.
While the state of Maryland was in Phase 1C at press time, it is up to individual counties to move from phase to phase when ready. Calvert County followed the state into 1C. But in Anne Arundel County, the health department said there just wasn’t enough shots to move into that phase. So far, the county has only offered vaccines to those in phases 1A and 1B, which includes those over the age of 75, healthcare workers, residents and staff in nursing homes or assisted living, first responders, government workers in certain agencies, correctional facility staff and residents, educators and child care workers.
“Our county hasn’t received enough vaccines to vaccinate all the 75-year-olds or educators, to move into the next phase yet,” said Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman in an address on social media. “As vaccine supply grows, we’re ready to get more vaccines into arms.”
So far, demand continues to outstrip supply. As of Feb. 1, just over 42,000 Anne Arundel residents have been vaccinated, about six percent of the population, according to the Health Department. The county reports that its allocation of doses from the state has been slashed in recent weeks.
The health department says it will move to begin vaccinating educators and child care workers next week, divvying up the available vaccine between private and public school employees.
“The COVID vaccines are safe and effective and they’re our path out of this pandemic,” stated Kalyanaraman.
There may be one path out of the pandemic, but at least three paths to getting the vaccine for Anne Arundel residents.
COUNTY HEALTH DEPT
The first is through the county health department. People in any phase can pre-register with the health department at aacounty.org/covidvax to be alerted when their phase is up for vaccinations. It’s important to note those who pre-register will not receive an automatic response. When there is availability and supply for that phase, the county will send an email for residents to select a date and time to make their appointment. Vaccines are administered at the health department in Annapolis and at Anne Arundel Community College.
Transportation can be arranged for those who need help getting to their appointments. Contact the Office of Transportation at 410-222-0023 for travel arrangements.
Annapolis resident Carol Dakin, who has been isolating herself for almost a year now, is in the 75+ group and was eager to sign up for the vaccine. She began by registering on the county health department, but heard nothing back.
“The most confusing part was, at the time, that we really didn’t know if filling out that one form was being coordinated anywhere else [so we would know] if any other sites would become available.”
She ended up taking a second path to successfully get a shot, directly through a medical center’s website. Dakin heard that she could go straight to the University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center (UM BWMC) website.
Both UM BWMC and Luminis Anne Arundel Medical Center (AAMC) have their own vaccine registration website and clinics, but at the time, Dakin says, AAMC was not on the state’s list of vaccination sites.
“I was hesitant to sign up,” Dakin says. “I didn’t want to cause confusion with having filled out one form already [with the health department].” But Dakin decided she would rather have “two hands in the fire than just one,” so she registered with UM BWMC, where she eventually received her first dose of the vaccine nearly two weeks after she started looking for appointments.
Beyond county pre-registration and medical center websites, there is still a third route to securing a vaccination appointment: retail pharmacies. The quiet announcement that Giant grocery stores were offering the vaccine quickly spread through communities, often through word of mouth and social media.
Judy Colbert had already signed up with the county health department and Luminis AAMC when she decided to check out the Giant Foods website. “I had heard that Giant was opening reservation slots, so I signed on to their site a couple of times until it changed from ‘No openings in your area’ to ‘Reservations being accepted’.”
Colbert had heard that Giant pharmacies would receive vaccine shipments that Monday at 11 a.m. So, she signed in at noon, along with 9,000 other people.
“My wait time was 50 minutes,” she says. “It updated the figures every 20–30 seconds and suddenly it went from 20 minutes to 2 minutes. It said I’d have 10 minutes to submit, once it was my time.”
Although Colbert had heard that the Glen Burnie and Riva Giants were giving vaccinations, neither was on the list of available sites when she checked. Elkridge was the closest to her home. “I clicked on Thursday and it gave me a list of time options. I picked 11 a.m. and completed the form and voila! They sent a confirmation email. They also sent an email request for medical contact information and questions about health and possible COVID contact.”
Colbert feels her experience getting the vaccine was smooth and impressively managed. The store was “basically empty, with a strict face mask policy,” Colbert says. “Chairs were placed at least six feet apart. [Staff member] Michele welcomed each of us, took info, sprayed and wiped chairs between each patient. I mentioned my nerves and she was so kind. Brought some water for me…After the injection and the required wait, Michele gave me my ID card and showed me the time and date for the follow-up appointment.”
CROSSING COUNTY LINES
Stories have flooded in about residents crossing county lines to get the vaccine. While all Maryland counties are busy vaccinating residents, few have enough doses to share with non-county residents or workers.
Prince George’s County learned in January that a number of people from outside that county were able to make vaccination appointments there through the state’s website. The county closed the loophole, canceling appointments for anyone who does not live or work in the county and is now requiring proof of residency or employment.
Though Judy Colbert lives in Anne Arundel, she received her vaccine in Howard County. “The rules are funny,” she says. “If you register through the government, apparently, you can only have an injection in your county. If you register through Giant, it doesn’t matter.”
In Calvert County, officials are also making sure they put Calvert residents and employees first.
“Because the supply of vaccine has been so small, priority for vaccination has been given to eligible individuals who live or work in the county.” says Champ Thomaskutty, deputy health officer for the Calvert County Department of Health.
Calvert is struggling even to meet that goal. “All access to vaccination is dictated by supply,” Thomaskutty says. “The local supply has been small and insufficient to meet the needs of early priority populations.”
In Calvert County, phases 1A, 1B and 1C are eligible. “Vaccine supply varies from week to week and is determined by the state,” Thomaskutty says. “The Calvert County Health Department has averaged dispensing over 95percent of the vaccine it receives each week.”
Calvert residents can pre-register online at www.calvertcountymd.gov/vaccine. If you are unable to pre-register online, call 410-535-0218 for assistance. The county also is providing taxi vouchers to anyone who needs help getting to their appointment (410-222-4222).
Unfortunately, pre-registering does not mean that you will quickly be vaccinated.
“While pre-registration aids in identifying people interested in the vaccine, it does not replace prioritization due to work, service or health conditions,” Thomaskutty says. “The health department is working directly with the local medical community and employers to identify those at highest risk due to pre-existing health needs or the nature of their work. Because of limited supply, the health department is not conducting walk-up clinics at this time. We hold appointment-only clinics to dispense available doses of vaccine to eligible individuals.”
The system worked for Charles Prout of Owings, who got an email alerting him that a dose was ready for him in January.
The 78-year-old Owings man called the health department, which directed him to pre-register online. Five days after registering, Prout received an email directing him to pick a day and time to get his first dose.
“I was able to get in that day—January 21,” Prout says. “I took a look at the available time slots and picked the one with the most vacancies.”
Prout hopped in the car and headed to his designated clinic site.
“I never even had to get out of my car,” Prout says. “I just followed the cones. The first person I came upon asked me my name and then told me to follow the car ahead of me.”
Prout found himself approaching a warehouse where two stations were set up at the end of the building. Having already been prompted to remove his sweater by the first person he encountered—Prout simply offered his arm up to receive his shot.
“They gave me a certificate and told me when my next vaccine was due,” Prout says. “This information was also on the card they gave me. I got the Moderna vaccine, which requires a second dose in four weeks. They said they’d email me to set up my time to come in for my next dose.”
The Health Department warns that waits may be lengthy for Calvert County neighbors—even those in high-priority groups like Prout.
“While the number of eligible groups has expanded, the available supply of vaccine has not. Under the current supply chain, it is possible that individuals in early priority groups may still have to wait weeks or even months before getting vaccinated,” Thomaskutty says.
In both Calvert and Anne Arundel counties, there is hope that the process will speed up. As of Feb. 2, Maryland providers have administered 553,733 COVID-19 vaccines, and 79.1 percent of all first doses have been given. The average daily rate of shots administered is 22,439—a 64 percent increase over the last two weeks. While the vaccination rate continues to increase, supply from the federal government remains extremely limited.
“The single biggest obstacle to COVID vaccination efforts is the lack of available vaccine,” Thomaskutty says. “If additional vaccines obtain emergency use authorization, or if the two currently authorized vaccines increase production, these wait times may be reduced.”
Beginning Friday, the state will open a series of mass vaccination sites to serve eligible residents. The first mass sites are set to open at the Baltimore Convention Center and Six Flags America in Prince George’s County. Announcements will be made as appointments become available.
Despite the challenges of getting your hands on a vaccination appointment, Maryland’s message is clear: be patient. On the state’s covidLINK website, the health department writes, “When it’s your turn, get vaccinated. Protect yourself, your loved ones, and your community.”