As residents across the state describe a nightmare scenario of searching to get vaccine appointments online, several providers and local groups say they are taking steps to help the most vulnerable residents get shots.
The rollout of the state’s vaccination process has been described as a “Hunger Games” situation where millions of people have flooded websites with hopes of getting slots — only to fail for hours or days on end. Hardest hit have been those with limited computer access or internet skills or essential workers who can’t spend all day online.
Many frustrated residents have turned to friends and families to help get appointments, as well as online forums like the Chicago Vaccine Hunters Facebook group to find information and advice on how to schedule a vaccination appointment.
Meanwhile, several healthcare providers and community groups have been actively helping users book appointments rather than leaving it up to them to navigate their systems. Some have acknowledged frustrations with their systems and made changes or fixed glitches.
Taking extra steps
Oak Street Health’s 21 clinics in Chicago each has a team of eight to 10 people that work with local organizations to call, knock on doors or host social-distanced events to schedule residents for appointments, Executive Medical Director Ali Khan said. Oak Street Health has also trained community-based organizations, union organizers, educators and clinicians how to use its scheduling system on behalf of patients.
“Taking those extra steps are the difference in advancing ... meaningful equity when it comes to vaccine distribution,” Khan said.
Oak Street Health has given more than 80,000 shots and hosted events in neighborhoods like Belmont Cragin and Montclare where up to 2,800 people were vaccinated.
Philip Quick, associate vice president of access and capacity for Rush University Medical Center, said the hospital has put out phone calls, text messages and emails to let eligible patients know when they can schedule a vaccination appointment.
He said Rush patients patients can call the Access Center, at 312-942-5000, for help in mitigating website issues, connecting to their electronic medical record and scheduling their vaccination appointment.
Still, frustrations remain.
After scheduling his first and second vaccination appointments through Walgreens’ website, Oak Park resident Matt Walters thought he was set, until he logged onto the site a few days later and found that his second slot was no longer showing up.
Walters said he called the pharmacy to give them his confirmation number as proof, but was told there was no indication of it in the system. Yet when he tried again to schedule a second appointment, the website would not let him, saying he already had an appointment.
It wasn’t until his wife called the pharmacy chain’s tech support that Walters learned his appointment was still in the Walgreens system, but due to a glitch it would not be visible to him or the pharmacy until the day before the appointment.
He said he has made a backup appointment at another provider in case his second appointment falls through, so he can still get the Moderna shot within the recommended timeframe of six weeks after the first dose.
“The stress and the anxiety and the panic that I was experiencing ... was really [about] a public health catastrophe that I think awareness needs to be raised about,” Walters said. “If we properly funded public health matters and we properly set up systems for vaccination distribution online, this didn’t have to happen.”
Walgreens said in an email to the Sun-Times that it has increased pharmacy staff and available vaccination sites to address the upsurge in requests for appointments as more residents become eligible.
“As demand for vaccinations and traffic to our online scheduling system continue to be high, our team has quickly identified and resolved any resulting technical glitches, often in as little as one hour,” Walgreens said.
Others have booked appointments, only to be turned away.
Daly Donnellan, of Glenview, said she registered via the Cook County site under Phase 1B+, since she had a health condition. But she later discovered that the system had changed her status to Phase 1B. Still, she was able to schedule an appointment through North Riverside Health Clinic, but Donnellan said she was turned away once she came for the vaccination because she didn’t meet the 1B requirements, which only apply to seniors and essential workers.
“I don’t want to be cutting ahead of people,” Donnellan said. But “I was really disappointed that they refused to give me the vaccine, because the facility was empty. ... That was such a massive waste of space and effort.”
When she asked if she could return at the end of the day to see if there were any leftover vaccines available, Donnellan said she was told no because she didn’t qualify. She left without a shot.
The Cook County Department of Public Health said it hasn’t had widespread difficulties with its websites, but it acknowledged the challenges people seeking vaccines have faced.
Nearly 1.3 million people have registered through the Cook County vaccination website since it launched in late January. In mid-March, the site was averaging 1.4 million hits per day.
Officials said there are some 175 COVID-19 vaccination call center agents taking calls at 833-308-1988; the center has responded to more than 420,000 calls since it opened in January.
“There is understandable frustration in the inability to land an appointment,” the department said in an email to the Sun-Times. “We’ve had no technical difficulties with the scheduling of appointments through the partners and many of our mobile programs and community groups are doing proactive outreach to equitably fill vaccination appointments.”
Local groups step up
Many community groups have worked with residents of vulnerable populations to avoid the frustration.
ENLACE Chicago has a team of 15 resource navigators and community health workers who contact participants and guide them through getting an appointment with an outside provider in Spanish or English, said Jadhira Sanchez, senior manager of community health.
ENLACE has helped register more than half of the 5,000 Little Village residents who have been vaccinated so far, she said. ENLACE has collaborated with the city on several vaccination drives, including a mass registration event through GetVaxChi, where the group registered 200 people in three days, Sanchez said.
Arturo Carrillo, director of health and violence prevention for the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, said his group has sought to make sure local residents benefit from inoculation events.
“We’ve definitely been deploying our community health workers and every kind of partnership that we have to ensure that people who are eligible to vaccines can sign up when those opportunities arrive,” he said. “Recently, there was a vaccination drive, where there was 500 vaccines available on a Sunday. And we were quickly able to get 800 people registered.”
Craig Chico, CEO of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, said through the city’s Protect Chicago Plus program, which prioritizes vaccines for communities with the highest number of essential workers and COVID-19 cases, vaccination scheduling has been made “1,000 times easier.”
He said before, residents complained about trying to secure appointments through larger chains like Walgreens and CVS, and they are now able to schedule appointments in their own neighborhood through the program with minimal paperwork and no documentation required.
Sanchez said Little Village is “extremely blessed” to be part of Protect Chicago Plus because it gives residents the upper hand when looking for vaccines, even if it only assures that 10-20% of community members will be vaccinated.
“It’s hard because I have family who are not part of program and it is heartbreaking that they are calling, looking for [the vaccine] everywhere and can’t find it,” Sanchez said
Even with the help available, other area residents said they ended up booking slots on their own or with advice from friends, family or social media. Many believe things would be far easier with a single system to schedule all shots.
Al Green, a 43-year-old from Bolingbrook, who has an underlying health condition, said after weeks of searching he ended up booking a vaccination at Walgreens after seeing a post about available slots on the Chicago Vaccine Hunters Facebook group. But Green said to make things simpler there should be a main channel that everyone can use to access vaccines.
“I find the process rather frustrating [and] skewed toward people that have certain privileges that everybody doesn’t share,” Green said. “... [We need to] invest in a public health infrastructure. There should be some avenues where every person in America has access to things like this.”