By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
In D.C., where I live, COVID-19 vaccines are given by appointment. You sign up through the D.C. Health Department either on its website or by phone. Starting a week ago (January 11) , D.C. Health opened vaccination appointments to citizens 65 years old and older. But many citizens have been extremely frustrated in their attempts to sign up.
One of my neighbors complained that she couldn’t get into the website for over an hour and then the site refused to accept her address. So she called the phone number provided, but they never called her back. After all that, she learned that during the time period she was trying to get an appointment, Ward 3, our ward (the District has eight wards), was not even eligible to try to make an appointment. This longtime resident was so frustrated that she said she is seriously considering moving elsewhere.
I can understand my neighbor’s frustration. I find myself swearing at the top of my lungs on a regular basis at automated hold lines on phones, and obstructive websites of all sorts. (Some day I’m going to give myself a stroke!)
But the problem is not entirely the District’s fault. Although the D.C. Health Department opened up nearly 6,000 first-dose vaccine appointments for seniors over 65 the next weekend (January 16-17) and when those appointments were filled, added some 1,000-plus appointments the next day (January 18), D.C. has 86,000 seniors over 65 years old and must distribute this first dose among all of the District’s eight wards.
In Ward 8, which has had 20 percent of the District’s COVID deaths, only 94 senior residents were able to get an appointment the first week. That amounted to about one percent of all appointments available. In contrast, Ward 3 residents accounted for about 40 percent of the appointments, which were available to all residents citywide. Ward 3 is predominantly white and affluent, while nearly half of the District is African-American, so there were charges that the vaccine system as operated discriminated against D.C.’s black residents.
Accordingly, on the weekend of January 16-17, the District adjusted its approach by limiting those who could sign up over the weekend to wards that had fewer successful sign-ups during the week, including Ward 8. All eight wards were again permitted to try to sign up for appointments on Monday, January 18.
In an email that Councilmember-at-Large Elissa Silverman sent to constituents, she explained that, in limiting the wards that could sign up, the District Council decided that a “first come, first served” approach didn’t take into account inequities in the community or ensure that those residents most at risk have equal access to the vaccine, and tried to correct for it. I think the effort at equity makes sense. But, at the same time, Ward 3’s larger number of sign-ups may have been because it has a larger number of seniors, also an at-risk group.
The real solution, of course, is to have more vaccines, and thus more vaccine appointments available. This is a concern not only in D.C. but all across the country that we can only hope the start of President-elect Biden’s Administration will cure.
But now, even if one signs up for District phone or email alerts letting you know when new batches of vaccination appointments will be available, the process—as Councilmember-at-Large Silverman put it—is like “trying to buy tickets to Hamilton.”
As for myself, I am not rushing to try to sign up. I do want to be vaccinated. But because I frequently develop allergies to various vaccines and medicines, I am trying to research which locations would best be able to deal with an anaphylactic reaction if I should have one. My allergic reactions thus far have never been that bad, but having heard reports about the nurse in Alaska who had to be hospitalized over her anaphylactic reaction to the vaccine, I want to be prepared for any possibility of a first time.
Jessie Seigel is a fiction writer, an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. She has twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her work. But, Seigel also had a long career as a government attorney, in which she honed her analytic skills. Of this double career, Seigel would say, “I guess my right and left brains are well balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.