People over age 75 and their friends and family members shared frustrations and confusion this past week over difficulties scheduling COVID-19 vaccinations, while volunteers stepped up to help.
Wallingford pediatriican Dr. Allison Beitel said her 76-year-old neighbor was struggling Tuesday to register for a COVID-19 vaccination through Hartford HealthCare’s MyChartPlus registration system.
Beitel was able to talk the neighbor through the roadblock — registering with no access code — and within minutes the neighbor had an appointment. For those using MyChartPlus, there is a tab for registering with no access code on the lower right side of the homepage.
But Beitel, and others, expressed concern for those who don’t have someone to help them and feel more outreach should be done.
People vented frustrations on local social media forums over long wait times on hotlines and websites that time out. The state’s Vaccine Administration Maintenance Service is particularly time consuming and requires an email, something not everyone over age 75 routinely uses.
“Even for people who are computer savvy, registering for a COVID vaccine can be challenging,” Beitel said. “For people who are elderly, the process is potentially daunting. Although there are hotlines and emails for those who need help, the waiting times can be prohibitive.”
Beitel helped her office staff and her 75-year-old father get vaccines through MyChartPlus, and advised the volunteers at the Chesprocott Health District and the Cheshire Medical Reserve Corps who were working its vaccination clinic. Like others in the health care industry, Beitel was vaccinated through her affiliation with Yale New Haven Hospital. But staff and volunteers had to secure their own.
“Rather than waiting to go through VAMS and DPH, we realized the quickest route to a vaccine would be through HHC,” Beitel said. “The best vaccine program in a pandemic is the one that gets the most people vaccinated, as quickly as possible.”
But those older than 75 need to know they’re eligible and need to be either tech savvy, wait on the phone, or have the assistance of a friend or family member.
Meriden resident Dana Hills was also following social media and noticed similar struggles for people trying to get appointments.
The VAMS website, which is connected to the state Department of Public Health, was proving to be the most difficult.
“I saw on (Facebook), that the older generation was having issues getting through on a phone line and with the website that was provided from the CDC,” Hills said. “I had offered my suggestion that the MyChartPlus application was the quickest/easiest way to sign up.”
Someone suggested Hills help them get an appointment, and she offered her services to assist anyone “that may not have the means to do so or have no family to assist,” she said. “I just feel that this vaccine is the first step in getting our lives back to some ‘normalcy’ so I am all for it, and will assist those who would like to get vaccinated.”
Both Hills and Beitel say personal health care providers should also be reaching out to their patients to set up vaccine appointments for them, or providing the vaccine themselves, if that becomes an option.
“This could mean creating a database of everyone over 75 in the practice and individually calling people to ask if they need help,” Beitel said. “It could mean sending an email with detailed instructions to help people navigate various computer systems. But for certain, we should all be working together to help the people who need this vaccine the most obtain it as quickly as possible.”
A Hartford HealthCare spokeswoman said the network has the capability through its access center to schedule vaccines for those that cannot utilize the digital platform. Eligible residents can call 860-827-7690 or toll free 833-943-5721.
Long waits for appointments
Many of those who receive appointments are finding they are well into February and March far longer than projected for the over age 75 cohort.
“I don’t feel that the over 75 community should have to wait until March,” said Hills, who is a certified pharmacy technician. “I don’t feel that the state feels that way either. The state is looking at many different resources to be able to inoculate everyone in a timely fashion especially our most vulnerable. And I am willing to help with that as much as I can. ”
Gaylord Specialty Healthcare in Wallingford opened its vaccination clinic to people over age 75 Thursday. Gaylord is following state-designated phases and appointments for vaccines can only be made through VAMS.
The Community Health Center has reached out to those living in congregate housing and has been in touch with the Meriden Housing Authority to assist residents living in senior housing, according to public health officials.
Hartford HealthCare opened four new vaccination clinics this week in addition to those already in operation to shorten the wait time for vaccines. The health care network is also introducing a mobile vaccination clinic to service vulnerable populations.
“We are prepared to continue to expand our vaccination capacity as eligibility allows,” said Dr. Jim Cardon of Hartford HealthCare. “Opening additional clinics as well as relocating and expanding clinics are all tactics we will deploy to meet the needs of our communities.”
The state has placed a priority on vaccinating those over age 75 in the first round of Phase 1b, but limited supply has significantly slowed the process.
A spokesman for Gov. Ned Lamont’s office said the state receives 45,000 doses of vaccine weekly and is prepared to distribute more doses when they arrive. It received 50,000 one-time bonus doses this week.
Under the Trump administration that left office Wednesday morning, the federal government authorized “Connecticut to receive the 45,000 weekly allotment under the limited national supply that is being produced,” spokesman David Bednarz stated in an email.
President Joe Biden said he plans to invoke measures to significantly increase production of the vaccine and make more doses available to the states, including the Defense Production Act.
“As this happens and production increases in the coming weeks, Gov. Lamont will be working closely with the new administration to see that Connecticut receives the supplies it needs to make the vaccine available to as many of our residents as quickly as possible,” Bednarz said.
Biden called the vaccine rollout a “dismal failure” Thursday and promised reforms, including expanding supply chains, medical personnel, use of the National Guard to administer vaccine, building vaccine trust in communities and addressing disinformation campaigns.
“It requires families and neighbors all looking out for one another,” Biden said. “We’re in a national emergency. It’s time we treated it like one.”
Locally, Hartford HealthCare receives varying amounts every week from the state, which puts even more uncertainty in scheduling appointments.
“The amount of vaccine we receive from the state has varied significantly in the first few weeks of the program,” said HHC Operations Manager Eric Arlia. “The range to date has been 1,950 to 40,000 doses in a given week.”
The state has also called for a no-waste policy. At Hartford HealthCare that means only one vial at a time is opened nearing the end of the clinic day. Also, whenever feasible, a list of individuals willing to receive a call for a last-minute dose is maintained and used to eliminate partial waste in the last vial, Arlia said.
The Meriden Department of Health and Human Services capacity at the Meriden Senior Center varies depending on how long the clinics are.
“We can accommodate 15 persons every 30 minutes to maintain social distancing at the Senior Center. A clinic operating from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. can accommodate 150 people,” said Director Lea Crown.
Those wishing to register at the senior center are asked to call 203-630-4221.
On Wednesday evening Beitel reported overnight improvements in the registration systems.
“VAMS is now open for public registration (75 plus), and the registration process is becoming more streamlined — so luckily speeding up,” she stated in an email. “And Yale is massively ramping up public vaccination clinics. Registration is also becoming easier on their end. But HHC wins for ease of registration in the beginning. Glad to see the others are catching up.”