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Looking for a vaccine appointment at your pharmacy? Get ready for ‘The Hunger Games’

We tested three pharmacy chains’ websites to try to sign up for a COVID-19 vaccination for elderly relatives who qualify — with no luck. But an Internet bot is giving some users hope.

Tanya Stabler Miller, left, and her mother, Priscilla, sit next to each other on a sofa in a November 2019 photo taken at Thanksgiving. Miller scoured the internet trying to find a vaccine appointment for her mom.
Tanya Stabler Miller, left, and her mother, Priscilla, celebrate Thanksgiving in November 2019, in happier times before the coronavirus. Miller scoured the internet trying to find a vaccine appointment for her mom.
Provided

Only four days into efforts to get vaccines into the arms of senior citizens, complaints are piling up about clunky websites and scarce appointment times at some of the pharmacies distributing the shots.

Some seniors are giving up in frustration because of the cutthroat competition.

And those without access to a computer or high-speed internet are likely to get left behind.

“It’s like ‘The Hunger Games.’ We’re all just trying to get ours,” said Tanya Stabler Miller of North Center, describing an inequitable system that forces people to scramble. She tried countless times on several different pharmacy websites to get a vaccine for her mother, Priscilla, 75, who is battling cancer. She even enlisted family members to divvy up the online searches.

Miller’s mother-in-law just recovered from COVID-19 but sadly, her father-in-law, who was 85, died from the virus two weeks ago. “He was a week away from getting a vaccination,” she said.

Desperate to help her mom, Miller stumbled upon a bot created by a Twitter user to continuously search the clunky Walgreens website for any openings. One came up in Calumet City and she was lucky enough to grab it. The bot no longer works.

Two Chicago Sun-Times reporters tested three of the sites at various times this week to try to obtain vaccine appointments for their relatives ages 65 and up.

Neither had any luck, which is not surprising given the scarce availability of vaccines everywhere. However, some websites were easier to use than others. Here’s what we found:

  • Walgreens’ site was the most arduous to navigate. After creating an account and answering questions attesting that you qualify for a vaccine, and then answering more questions about ethnicity and insurance, the site asks you to choose one Walgreens store out of 71 locations. Once there, you choose one date and then click on six different blocks of time to see if any appointments are available. If you strike out, you can choose a new date and search six time blocks. You repeat the searches for every date at that one store location, and if you strike out, you can choose another store and start all over again.
  • Walmart’s site also requires users to create an account and confirm eligibility. In our Chicago search, it displayed eight store locations. You click on a store location and a one-week calendar appears — but none of the locations had any open appointments when we looked.
  • Jewel-Osco’s site let us search within a 50-mile radius of our ZIP code and displayed everything on one calendar and one drop-down menu of store locations, which was easy to navigate. But there were no open appointments.
  • Mariano’s site as of Thursday evening stated vaccines in Chicago were only available for health care workers. Vaccines for the rest of Illinois were “coming soon.”
A screenshot of the Walgreens vaccination appointment site.
A screenshot of the Walgreens vaccination appointment site.
Stephanie Zimmermann/Sun-Times

‘Scattershot’

Bob Gallo, Illinois state director for AARP, says the approach by vaccine providers so far has been “scattershot,” with many seniors unsure what to do.

“People may or may not have aptitude or even a connection to the internet,” Gallo said. “We’re hearing this from all over the state.”

The Walgreens bot Miller found was created by a Chicago man, who, reached via Twitter, identified himself as “Tom,” a father who works in tech.

“I have parents, aunts and uncles ... who were driving themselves bonkers searching location after location, day after day, at all hours of the day and night. When I heard about my aunt waking up at 3 a.m. to do more searching, I decided to look into how I might be able to help,” he said.

Walgreens apologizes

A Walgreens spokesperson issued a statement: “We are aware our scheduling platform is not working as intended and apologize for the inconvenience. We have dedicated teams actively working through these issues with the utmost urgency to ensure all eligible individuals are able to schedule their appointments in a timely manner. We appreciate your patience and expect to resolve the matter in the coming days.”

Tom, the bot creator, said he’s gotten grateful messages on social media from people who were able to get an appointment for an elderly relative.

“It’s been nice to hear from lots of people grateful that this helped them find a slot for a grandparent. When it comes to the appointments themselves, though, I know it’s [a] zero sum [game] — that’s an appointment someone else didn’t get,” he said.

The bot website asks users to give back by donating to the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Innocence Project or the Special Gifts Theatre — something Miller says she and her sister did right away.

She drove her mom to Calumet City on Thursday morning, grateful to get the shot but angry knowing that Chicagoans who don’t have access to a computer or hours of free time to endlessly search may get shut out, at least from these shots.

“It’s not fair,” she says. “It’s absolutely ridiculous.”