WASHINGTON — The process to book a vaccine appointment in the District has become so strenuous, there are concerns it could create even more hesitancy among residents who are already skeptical or don't have the technical experience or means.
Local health officials have made efforts to provide better outreach and access to underserved communities where the pandemic has disproportionately affected many of the Black population. Community leaders have also been mobilized to break down stigma rooted in the history of mistreatment and discrimination.
However, residents such as Katie Wall-Mansen fear the technical hurdles to sign-up online might only be pushing more people away. She started the group "DC Vaccine Coalition" in January after reading many comments on Nextdoor on how confusing it was, especially for the older citizens, to reserve a slot.
"I fear we're actually creating a new form of vaccine hesitancy and that's been so difficult for people to register for a vaccine that I understand people's plight and that they may sit back and not want to do this again," Wall-Mansen said. "That's something that concerns me not just now when we're looking for herd community but also in the future if another pandemic were to rise or in the future when these people need boosters."
Her group has grown to include about 50 volunteers working to make the process easier for many of the residents from different backgrounds they serve by finding appointments online.
The process first starts out by looking at other avenues outside of the DC Health portal system, and determines if any of the hospitals or community clinics could take them.
Wall-Mansen said the volunteers always have the person's information populated so they can quickly enter them into the system, have different browsers up at the same time to determine which one is working faster and make sure they're on the call line at the same time appointments become available.
"We organized chaos but we are in and willing," she said.
So far the team has been able to reserve appointments for 30 residents and is currently working on more than 60 on their list for this week.
The District received 9,360 first doses of the Pfizer vaccine this week, but it's still significantly lower compared to the demand. On Friday, more than 36,000 people tried to access the DC Health sign-up portal when only 4,350 slots were available.
Technical issues riddled the vaccine registration website almost immediately when city officials opened up the eligibility criteria to people 18 years and older with qualifying medical conditions. Frustrations from both residents trying to sign up and council members flooded social media as they demanded for a better and less stressful sign-up system.
DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson addressed the concerns in a briefing on Monday. He said there's been ongoing conversation with senior levels of the administration and Microsoft on how "to prevent further collapse."
"My understanding is the problem has to do with the process it was set up with the software," Mendelson said. "It's unfair to folks that they go to website as they're supposed to do and the website crashes.
The District is planning to launch a new process that would allow eligible residents to register once and receive a notification on when to sign up once more doses become available.
Meanwhile, there's more excitement in the health community that a third COVID-19 vaccine from Johnson & Johnson. Unlike Pfizer and Moderna, J&J's vaccine is a single-dose that doesn't require strict refrigeration.
Johnson & Johnson has started distributing doses to D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Maryland and Virginia this week:
- D.C.: 6,000 doses
- Virginia: 69,7000 doses
- Maryland: 49,6000 doses
- West Virginia: 15,500 doses
"It definitely gives the people that we work with more hope," Wall-Mansen added. "I think the other thing is it changes the verbiage that we can we use with these residents to say look at what D.C. to increase the supply after all the problems in the past. It kind of gives that renewed faith in the process but also in people's apprehension on whether or not the government is working for them."
If you'd like to reach the "D.C. Vaccine Coalition," you can email email@example.com or call 240-516-6993. Volunteers will also help facilitate transportation services to appointments if needed. They're hoping to have a website and Facebook page soon.