COVID-19 vaccinations are steadily on the rise across the D.C region — but so is frustration about booking an appointment.
A little over 1.5 million people across D.C., Maryland and Virginia have received shots in the arm since COVID-19 vaccine doses supplied by the federal government first showed up late last year, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But millions more are eligible.
Extremely limited supply is just one problem, though, said Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles, who appeared before members of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Wednesday afternoon.
Gayles, who was representing county health officers in his appearance before the regional body, said the lack of centralized registration systems to book vaccine appointments has led, in some cases, to “chaos and confusion” as multiple sites are administering the vaccine “on different schedules, with different registration portals and platforms.”
Across all three jurisdictions, hospitals and retail pharmacies, such as Giant and CVS, are being supplied with vaccine doses to provide to the public. But that means residents often have to monitor multiple websites, sometimes for hours a day, to try to snag an appointment — and the various online systems don’t “talk” to each other, Gayles said.
“The states have a registration system that is different from the registration system, in some instances, with hospitals, which is different from the registration system from pharmacies … It’s difficult to be able to track one person through a system,” Gayles said.
In Maryland, officials have defended the decentralized system of distributing vaccines as more “agile” and a way to ensure there’s no single point of failure if a website goes down or is overrun.
But the profusion of online sign-ups has led to frustration around the region.
In Virginia, officials conceded this week that the launch of a partnership with CVS was “not an ideal rollout” after an online sign-up site that was supposed to be reserved for people who had preregistered with local health departments was instead opened up to the general public.
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David Snyder, a member of the Falls Church City Council, said the frustration of residents waiting to be inoculated revolves around one question: What’s fair?
“If you’re 65 and not able to get the vaccine, you think that’s not fair. If you live in a vulnerable community and are an essential worker, and you’re not able to get the vaccine, you think that’s not fair,” he said.
Snyder urged local health officers to be specific about the number of doses they need so local officials could better advocate for them.
Gayles acknowledged distributing the vaccine is a “numbers game” and, right now, “the numbers don’t match up.”
In Montgomery County, about 60,000 vaccine doses have been distributed to county residents so far, but there are five times as many people — 300,000 residents — eligible to receive the shots.
Given the limited federal supply, allocating doses between local health departments and private providers, such as retail pharmacies, also amounts to a zero-sum game, Gayles said.
“Right now, in a limited supply, all of the doses that are going to Safeway, Giant, Rite Aid, CVS, independent living places, nursing homes, health departments, hospitals are coming from one pool,” Gayles said. “And so, when that’s a fixed pool, anytime you shift doses to one place, you’re ultimately pulling doses from another platform, and it creates a competition of sorts, which we don’t want to have happen.”
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said the federal government needs to make it clear what the priorities should be.
Montgomery County and the state of Maryland first prioritized health care workers and then residents age 75 and older under Phase 1a and 1b of the vaccine rollout plan. “Before we got halfway through that group, they then said we’re prioritizing 1c,” which includes people 65-74.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has said both the outgoing Trump administration and the current Biden administration pressed states to open up eligibility more widely, even though the number of doses hadn’t increased.
Speaking Wednesday, Elrich said, “We need the federal government to reassert priorities in vaccine distribution,” which means making sure that there are enough doses supplied to cover the entire population that is prioritized at any given time.
“If you want to bring order back: Let people know who’s getting vaccinated (and) when they’re getting vaccinated, so people can look at the progress that we make, and figure out when their turn’s gonna come,” Elrich said. “But right now, it is chaos.”