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One man’s quest for the COVID-19 vaccine: Tips to remember when it’s your time to be immunized

Alan Boyle
·8 min read
COVID-19 vaccination
Patient care technician Myo Thant gets the COVID-19 vaccine at UW Medical Center – Montlake. (UW Photo)

Trying to get an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine on the day that eligibility was expanded to new age groups in Washington state would be a familiar experience to anyone who’s tried to get a hot movie ticket, a cheap airfare or season tickets to Kraken hockey games.

I’ve been through all of those trials, and my efforts to work through the online hiccups and fast-disappearing slots are likely to be replicated in the months ahead as efforts to quell the coronavirus pandemic continue to ramp up.

Bottom line? Sharpen your searching skills, don’t wait for an invitation, and pursue multiple options.

Your mileage may vary, of course. I was just one of thousands of regular folks aged 65 and older who joined the search for the vaccine on Monday. Some of my older neighbors have had better luck seeking out vaccine appointments. One has already gotten her first shot, thanks to some expert-level sleuthing by her daughter.

In contrast, I started out almost from ground zero on Monday: I had used the beta version of the state Department of Health’s Phase Finder app, but in the past, vaccinations were limited to Phase 1A — that is, health care workers as well as residents and staff members at assisted-living facilities. So I didn’t get very far before I was dumped out of the questionnaire.

By Monday, Phase Finder had quietly widened the field to Phase 1B, which started out including the over-70 crowd. I have a family member who fits that description, so I filled out the questionnaire on her behalf. At the end, there was a multicolored, printable page announcing her eligibility — plus a link to a precious page that listed the places where vaccinations were theoretically available.

Emphasis should be on the adverb “theoretically.” Many of the health care facilities on the list were still limiting appointments to Phase 1A. At least one hospital system, however, was offering an online appointment system for 1B, and I quickly signed up for a mid-March opening.

Then a new twist popped up as a notification on my smartphone: Gov. Jay Inslee had just announced the widening the eligibility to age 65 and up. That set me back to question-answering and searching — but this time around, my efforts to work through Phase Finder were bogged down in an online traffic jam. I could get through enough of the questionnaire to be assured I was eligible, but I couldn’t get to the magic final page.

Fortunately, I had already gone through the process and could retrieve the cached webpage with appointment options. (The once hard-to-find page is now widely publicized, but still not fully updated.)

UW Medicine was one of the hospital systems I contacted, but their phone system was clearly swamped. After waiting 20 minutes on hold, I was connected to a line that just went dead.

Today I received an automated text acknowledging the issue: “We are currently experiencing overwhelming demand at our Call Center,” UW Medicine reported. “Requests are being processed in the order received. Please refrain from calling or submitting multiple requests.”

I ended up making two sets of appointments with other health care systems: I added to my family member’s original appointment in mid-March, and also signed us up for an earlier slot at a closer hospital during the last week of February. If the earlier slot ends up working out as planned, I’ll cancel the later appointment.

Even though the appointments are set, there’s no iron-clad guarantee about the availability of vaccines for those appointments. The Department of Health anticipates doing 45,000 vaccinations a day, which would add up to 315,000 shots in a seven-day week. That’s more than three times the current federal allotment for Washington state — which means state health officials are counting on the federal government to distribute significantly more of the vaccine in the weeks ahead.

“Our hope is to get to Phase 1B tiers 2, 3 and 4 in late winter or early spring,” the department said in Monday’s news release. “We’re going to get through 50% of tier 1 before we add in anyone else.”

Unless there’s a significant expansion of capacity for vaccine production and distribution — which isn’t outside the realm of possibility — that suggests it could be spring or summer by the time all the young whipper-snappers can be accommodated. In the meantime, a more transmissible coronavirus variant is likely to spread, and the nationwide death count is likely to surpass half a million.

In anticipation of those later stages of availability, here are a few tips:

  • Get the inside scoop: In retrospect, if I had paid more attention to online neighborhood forums such as NextDoor, I might have been savvier from the get-go about my search for vaccine information.

  • Be prepared: One of the things that slowed me down had to do with online credentials. For example, one of the easiest ways to sign up for a vaccine appointment might have been to use UW Medicine’s online scheduling portal. But even though my family has been treated at UW facilities in the past, I didn’t have the required credentials at hand. While you wait for vaccine availability, make sure you have everything you need to make appointments online.

  • Be flexible: My neighbor was able to get her first vaccine shot so quickly because an earlier slot opened up, apparently due to cancellations. Also, if the pace of vaccinations increases, more appointments may be added to the schedule at odd hours. If you have an appointment that’s months away, it’s not a bad idea to check back occasionally for shorter-term opportunities.

  • Remember the second shot: I’ve scheduled my first shot, but I still have to make an appointment for the second vaccination in mid- to late March. The online scheduling tool that I’m using doesn’t go that far out, so I’ve set a reminder to keep checking the website when that time frame opens up. Based on my experience so far, those appointments will go fast.

  • Consider volunteering: Some clinics are looking for volunteers to help out as vaccination efforts ramp up. For example, Swedish Medical Center has teamed up with Seattle University to set up a community vaccination clinic, with Seattle U students, faculty and staff invited to serve as volunteers (and potentially get an early shot). Overlake Medical Center has put out a call for skilled volunteers.

Despite the challenges, I feel confident that I’ll get through the vaccination process in time for the summer travel season — which is more than I can say about my chances of getting Kraken season tickets.

Update for 5:38 p.m. PT Jan. 19: Less than two hours after this story was published, I received an email invitation and an access code from Overlake Medical Center, my regular health care provider, to sign up for vaccine appointments that were available this week. I also signed up for the second shot in mid-February. That demonstrates the value of having an online account with a health care provider — as noted above in the “Be Prepared” tip.

Update for 7:45 p.m. PT Jan 21: Going through the process of getting vaccinated was relatively painless — as was the injection itself. I had filled out all the paperwork in advance, so I quickly made my way through a series of three checkpoints, sat down alongside a staff member and bared my shoulder for the needle. The total wait time to get the shot was far less than the 15 minutes I spent waiting at the clinic afterward to make sure I didn’t have an adverse reaction to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. I’ll get the follow-up shot in three weeks.

After I tweeted out this picture, a fellow twitterer asked me whether I was given a formal vaccination record that I could carry with me when I travel. The only record I could retain is the card that you see in the picture — and I now realize that the card is an important thing to hold onto. I also registered the information about my vaccination with V-Safe, a health monitoring app created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Update for 1:50 p.m. PT Jan. 22: On the day after the first shot, my arm’s a bit sore — about the same level of soreness as I felt after getting my flu shot last fall. I’ve heard that the second shot packs more of a punch when it comes to side effects, and I’ll fill you in on my experience in a follow-up story.

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