PROVIDENCE — When local retail pharmacies announced that seniors over 75 could start booking vaccine appointments, loved ones of aging Rhode Islanders felt relief for the first time in nearly a year.
But this part of the first phase of the state’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout hasn’t gotten off to a smooth start, according to frustrated seniors who were desperately trying to get an appointment to be immunized this weekend. In terms of the number of vaccines administered, Rhode Island had dropped to last place among New England states by Monday morning.
Lori DeLancey lives in Tennessee and spent the weekend trying to book an appointment for her 75-year-old mom, who has multiple comorbidities and lives in Smithfield, R.I. DeLancey logged in to the CVS vaccine portal just after midnight Saturday night and the registration form was not yet available.
She logged in again at 8:22 a.m. Sunday and filled out a registration form that consisted of a few pages’ worth of questions before the system notified her that there were no appointments available. Each time she tried, she had to answer all of the questions again.
“I had to keep filling info out, wait and hope, just to see the unavailable screen again and again,” said DeLancey. “I have one job, which is to take care of my mom, and I feel like I can’t even do that.”
Compared to Tennessee, the process in Rhode Island is confusing, DeLancey said. In Tennessee, there’s a single website where residents go to sign up with the local health department to be notified when they become eligible (DeLancey is not yet eligible). But in trying to sign her mother up for a vaccine in Rhode Island, DeLancey said, she’s found there are too many routes seniors and their caregivers can take, with no guarantee of a confirmed vaccine appointment at the end.
“I’m signing her up at the senior center, at CVS and Walgreens, and contacting the town. I’m putting her name in everywhere because I don’t care who puts the vaccine in her arm, as long as she gets in,” said DeLancey.
The online questionnaires and registration forms have left even tech-savvy Rhode Island seniors confused. The forms themselves are not difficult to understand; the problem is where to find them and whether the Rhode Islanders filling them out will actually be able to book an appointment.
“We’re building the plane as it’s already in the air,” Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, a member of Rhode Island’s COVID-19 vaccine subcommittee, said recently.
As criticism brews over the slow pace of the state’s vaccination rollout, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of Rhode Island’s health department, reiterated that she is laser focused on an approach that is equitable
“We have come up against the push for speed versus equity. That ends up being at some cost to the speed dynamic,” Alexander-Scott told members of the state’s COVID-19 vaccine subcommittee on Friday.
But not all communities in Rhode Island have rolled out vaccines in the same way.
Most communities in Rhode Island are allowing residents over the age of 75 to get vaccinated, but some towns, like East Greenwich, are encouraging residents older than 65 call the recreation office or the senior center for information. In Foster, residents over age 60 are being asked to email the director of human and senior services to get on a notification list. And without a consistent message from the state, many seniors are left confused.
Courtney Chandler of North Kingstown spent Saturday afternoon trying to fill out an online application for her 73-year-old boyfriend to get vaccinated at a local retail pharmacies. They finally got to the point of the application where it asked if they wanted to confirm by phone or continue on the computer. They opted for phone and received a code.
“We were trying to put in the code and it wasn’t fast enough for them and they kicked us out” and received a message to hold for a customer service representative, said Chandler.
They held for an hour and a half before they finally hung up — and gave up.
The couple had just returned to Rhode Island from a three-week trip to Florida, where they were told that they would have both been eligible for a vaccine because some clinics had “extra” doses at the end of each day.
“I didn’t want to take anything from the residents there,” said Chandler. Now looking back, she said they should have gotten it while they were there.
Other residents in Rhode Island are also looking to other states to receive a vaccine quickly.
Laura Donaldson Dempsey of North Kingstown and her sister were able to book appointments at a Walgreens in Moosup, Connecticut, for their Warwick-based parents, who are 80 and 78 years old. Their shots were scheduled for Wednesday and they received confirmation numbers and instructions in an email.
Shortly after, an email came through with the subject line: “Your appointment has been canceled.”
“No explanation or apology,” said Donaldson Dempsey. “The word on the street is they won’t let out-of-state [residents] get vaccinated. The problem lies in the fact that Walgreens allows us to make the appointments in the first place.”
“Vaccine inventory is currently limited, but supply is increasing,” said Walgreens’ spokeswoman Rebekah Pajak. She said customers are required to attest to their eligibility before the appointment is made. Upon arriving at their vaccine appointment, patients must sign an affidavit confirming they meet their state’s eligibility requirement for the vaccine and show a valid government ID to confirm their identity at the time of their vaccination appointment.
As for those Rhode Islanders booking vaccine appointments in Connecticut, Pajak said, “I believe Connecticut has a residency or work requirement to receive vaccine there.”
In Tennessee, DeLancey was finally able to register her mom for a vaccine with the Walgreens in Johnston, R.I., on Tuesday after refreshing the registration link for hours on Sunday.
“It’s a thousand pounds off my shoulders,” said DeLancey. “This is the homestretch.”