Massachusetts residents 75 and older were able to begin making appointments for COVID-19 vaccinations on Wednesday, but openings were few and far between for those who logged on to try to secure time slots on the first day.
Many seniors described a confusing system in which a map of vaccination locations provided by the state took them to individual websites that had their own processes for scheduling appointments and required varying levels of information. Some websites indicated appointments were free for a specific date and had users waiting up to an hour to move forward with the time slot, only to be told it wasn’t actually available. Other websites indicated only those eligible under Phase 1 of the state’s vaccination plan were eligible to sign up, though the 75 and older group qualifies under Phase Two.
Five people spoke to the Globe about what it was like navigating the online system to secure appointments for themselves or their loved ones.
Joseph White, 76, has started limiting the number of times he checks for COVID-19 vaccination appointments to two times per day after realizing within the first few times of trying that “if you don’t get on the first time around, you’re not going to get on.”
White and his wife, who live in Swansea, haven’t yet been able to secure appointments to get vaccinated for COVID-19 and are among many seniors who have been frustrated by the process. White said he was irritated that the Walgreens’ website requires you to set up an account with an e-mail address and password before you can check for available appointments. They haven’t found anything available through CVS, and he hasn’t found a place that would allow himself and his wife to make appointments at the same time.
“I’m pretty computer savvy and we found the whole thing convoluted,” White said on Friday. “It’s too many links and too much clicking, and it’s not as simple and straightforward as it should be. The last two or three days we have accomplished nothing except wasted our time trying.”
He said he noticed that some people have had success booking appointments by logging on right at midnight, so on Friday he’s planning to leave his computer on and set his Amazon Alexa device to wake him up so he can try again.
White said he was impressed with Governor Charlie Baker’s response to the pandemic in the initial phases when Baker began implementing restrictions on businesses and gatherings. But he’s not as enthusiastic about Baker’s handling of the vaccine rollout.
“It seems like the whole thing has been a disaster,” White said.
On Wednesday morning, Freda Shapiro noticed her 76-year-old boyfriend, Mario, on his computer while holding a magnifying glass trying to read the screen when she stepped in to help him look for a COVID-19 vaccination appointment.
Shapiro isn’t yet eligible for vaccines, as she’s in the 65 and older age group that is eligible later on in Phase Two, after those 75 and older and certain essential workers.
She said she started trying to book an appointment by checking for availability at the mass vaccination sites the state has established, including Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, but after spending 20 minutes uploading photos of Mario’s insurance card and inputting personal information, she found that no appointments were available.
Then Shapiro, who lives in the Boston area, moved on to trying locations at pharmacies and markets all over the state: north, west, and south of Boston, Cape Cod, western Massachusetts, and “everywhere possible,” she said, but she couldn’t find an available appointment.
“It was incredibly frustrating and very upsetting because not only did I not get anywhere with it, but I was also thinking about all the other people that are 75 plus and trying to manage it,” she said. “I don’t know how they’re going to do it. It’s way too many steps and it’s very, very difficult. It’s a really heavy lift just to get the photos uploaded of your card.”
Shapiro on Thursday heard from her sister, who was able to secure appointments for herself and their 94-year-old mother at Gillette, and began walking Shapiro through the steps she took.
Both Shapiro and Mario got COVID-19 last year, though she said Mario had a much more difficult time with the virus and experienced symptoms for three months. For them, the best part of securing an appointment for Mario to get vaccinated is the immense sense of relief they feel.
“Having this extra layer of protection will give [Mario] some peace of mind,” she said.
Karen Barnett, 77, had initially been told by her doctor’s office that they would send invitations to patients to reserve vaccination appointments. But on Wednesday morning, she called their office and learned invitations weren’t going to go out until next week, so she joined others online in searching for a slot.
Barnett, who lives in Boston, found available appointments in Pittsfield and North Adams and decided to go with the Pittsfield location. She didn’t love the idea of making such a far drive by herself, but she’s having surgery in March and said she’s determined to get both shots before the procedure.
The next day, she woke up at dawn to see if there was anything available that’s closer to where she lives and found an appointment for this weekend at Gillette Stadium. She considers herself very lucky to have a slot reserved.
“I would think in this high-tech valley that we’re in that they could have done a much better job in setting up the website,” she said. “So many people of a certain age can’t handle it.”
Barnett said she’s looking forward to a return to something resembling normalcy.
“I’m awaiting what it’s like to emerge from the cocoon,” Barnett said. “For those of us 75 and above who are retired, living alone if you don’t have a partner, it really is a cocoon.”
Diane Huster, 77, was among those ready at 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday to book a vaccination appointment. She searched for slots for a half hour at Lawrence General Hospital and the DoubleTree Hotel in Danvers, but didn’t see any open times.
Huster, who lives in North Andover, tried again at 7 a.m. the next day. She accessed the state map and went through the process of registering at Lawrence General seven times, inputting her information only to be told there were no slots left.
“Seven times I got through and registered. I had picked a time, I went through the process of registering, and it said ‘sorry no longer available.’” Huster said. “It was so frustrating to get in, think you had that time slot, but you didn’t, and all your information was erased so you had to start over again.”
She tried a couple of pharmacies, but didn’t like that their websites prompted her to make an account with an e-mail address and a password.
By noon, she had given up.
At about 5 p.m., she got back on her iPad to try again, just in case, and she was able to get an appointment at Lawrence General.
“I just lucked out,” she said. “I immediately sent it to a friend and said ‘there’s slots at Lawrence General,’ and by the time she got on, they were gone.”
For Huster, who lives alone, the months spent inside due to the pandemic have been a lonely experience, she said.
“It means for me, once I get the second [shot], that I can go to the grocery store without fear,” she said. “That I can visit my daughter and granddaughter. We probably still won’t hug because she goes to school, but I can at least visit them.”
Bruce Jones tried to find a vaccination appointment for somewhere on Cape Cod on Wednesday morning, the first day appointments opened up to people 75 and older.
The 75-year-old went to Stop & Shop’s website and saw an opening for an appointment on Feb. 9 at the Hyannis location that’s not too far from his Barnstable home. The website told him he would have to wait an hour to book an appointment, and to Jones, it looked promising, with a graphic that counted down the time remaining. But an hour later, the screen flashed that no appointments were available.
He hasn’t tried to get an appointment since.
“What’s frustrating is the lack of information locally and statewide,” he said.
For Jones, receiving the vaccine marks the beginning of the end of a period that has kept him from traveling and seeing family and friends. He misses volunteering at Cape Cod Hospital, interacting with coworkers and customers at the L.L. Bean where he used to work in Mashpee, and holding his 23-month-old granddaughter who he and his wife used to babysit every Monday.
“I’m near tears talking about it,” Jones said. “I want to move on.”