A customer enters the Hy-Vee on DeKalb Avenue in Sycamore next to a sign promoting their drive-thru COVID-19 testing. Mark Busch - mbusch@shawmedia.com

It took 72-year-old Barbara Moroz three nights of logging in to Sycamore Hy-Vee’s pharmacy online portal at midnight in an attempt to score a coveted COVID-19 vaccine appointment before the slots seemed to fill by 12:05 a.m.

This story also appeared in Shaw Media

And she was one of the lucky ones, she said, reiterating frustrations many are feeling as vaccine rollout continues to revolve around digital registration portals while some of the virus’ most vulnerable population, those 65 and older, struggle with landing a shot. After trying for three days in a row, she finally scheduled an appointment for 3:15 p.m. Feb. 3. She’s due for her second dose in early March.

“That is the most horrible experience, it takes forever,” Moroz, of Sycamore, said.

She’s been trying to help her elderly friend, who doesn’t have a computer, do the same for a week now, with no success. She tried Walgreens pharmacy, too.

“When we found out our Hy-Vee was going to have it, I tried during the day to register, and every time I got on there it said ‘none available,’” Moroz said. “So then somebody said ‘You have to go on at midnight and be really fast typing in the information, because if you’re not fast enough, you’re going to get kicked out and they’re going to be out of vaccine.’”

Pharmacies across Illinois including Hy-Vee, Walmart, Jewel-Osco and Meijer are offering limited COVID-19 vaccine appointments. Many seniors are expressing frustrations at the digital-only registration process, while pharmacies say they’re working with what they have amid an extreme shortage of vaccine availability. (Screenshot by Kelsey Rettke)

Pharmacies across Illinois including Hy-Vee, Walmart, Jewel-Osco and Meijer are offering limited COVID-19 vaccine appointments. Many seniors are expressing frustrations at the digital-only registration process, while pharmacies say they’re working with what they have amid an extreme shortage of vaccine availability. (Screenshot by Kelsey Rettke)

Appointment agony

In a process which seems these days akin to finding that elusive Wonka golden ticket only with steeper, more life-changing implications, seniors and those eligible for vaccine are being asked to register via online portals at various places around the county. Whether through local pharmacies, their hospital provider or the health department, many are saying vaccine appointments are almost impossible to secure these days.

“This entire situation has me frustrated and more upset,” said Cheryl Chilson, 61, of Sycamore who said she has stage 4 cancer. She said her husband, 68, an essential worker in the food service industry and a diabetic, also meets “so many bullet points and criteria” to get a vaccine in the current phase, and they’ve had limited success.

“I have not gone anywhere since February of last year, except to and from medical appointments,” Chilson said. “Almost daily, there is information coming from the state and county that is confusing and miscommunicated with each of the branches and its citizens.”

Online registration portals have become a norm as the country continues to unveil its mass vaccination efforts, though differ state by state and, in some cases, county by county depending on who you ask. Those interviewed for this story or who commented on the coverage posed by the Daily Chronicle but did not want to be included, voiced frustrations about a lack of appointments or the continued need to be plugged in digitally in the off-chance an appointment becomes available.

A local pharmacy technician who said he works at a Walgreens (another local pharmacy in DeKalb County which offers limited supply of vaccine doses) but wished to remain anonymous for fear of workplace retaliation, said he wants people to know he’s “exhausted” and that staff at pharmacies are trying their best.

“People don’t believe me,” he said. “Patients need to know it’s a process. It’s all brand new to everyone and there isn’t enough trained to be able to administer to every person in DeKalb County. We are still trying to get through clinics from nursing homes we started in the beginning of January, and the vaccines are coming based off the state. We don’t know how many we will get every day.”

He said so much is reliant upon a vaccine distribution setup statewide which does not ensure regular weekly shipment amounts, leaving pharmacies and other places unable to plan more ahead.

“I don’t work at the location that has the vaccines daily but I think they do at least 60 a day maybe less,” he said. “And it all depends on the state and how much they get approved to roll out if some chance they can get more they open up more slots on the website. But it has to be checked almost daily.”

He said he knows people are frustrated, but should attempt to read FAQs or listen to informative answering machines when calling pharmacies.

When she was actually able to register for her appointment, Moroz said the process itself wasn’t difficult at all.

“The pharmacist who gave me the shot was very professional, I didn’t feel it at all,” Moroz said. “But the people at Hy-Vee were wonderful, very patient, very kind. I have to give it to them because I can imagine how many people come in there every day.”

Moroz said she worries for seniors who don’t have a computer or aren’t as tech-savvy as she, having to put in information, scan or upload a photo ID to prove their age (”I don’t know how to do any of that stuff,” Moroz said.)

When the portal indicated she’d need to bring scanned or printed proof of her registration information with her to her appointment, Moroz said she got her son-in-law to come over and help her fix her printer, only to discover when she arrived at Hy-Vee, they already had that information on file.

These steps, although simple for some, she said, can add another layer of frustration to an already overwhelming process as many attempt to work beyond barriers, desperate to return to a safe level of ‘normal.’

“It is very discouraging,” Moroz said. “I know how to use the computer but I wouldn’t be able to do it on my phone because it’s too little. And if you have an old phone you have to press hard buttons. My friend has an old Samsung. The screen is so dark I can’t read anything.”

The pharmacy drive-thru at the Hy-Vee on DeKalb Avenue in Sycamore. 
Mark Busch – mbusch@shawmedia.com

Pharmacies working with limited supply

Like all COVID-19 vaccine providers these days, Hy-Vee Pharmacy is working with extremely limited supply, said Christine Gayman, director of public relations with Hy-Vee Corporate, based in Des Moines, Iowa.

Distribution of vaccine therefore, she said, is not as easy as it sounds.

She said the company is not publicly sharing how many vaccine doses it has received so far across eight states and in the 16 pharmacies offering appoints in Illinois because “it’s such a limited allocation.” Hy-Vee receives weekly vaccine shipments directly from the Illinois Department of Public Health, separate from the shipments sent to county health departments.

“Hy-Vee and all pharmacies working toward the same goal are asking people to be patient,” Gayman said Wednesday. “We know it’s hard because people have been waiting a long time and they’re excited to get it. It is limited allocation across the board right now, and we are working hard to make sure we’re vaccinating as many people as we can.”

Registration portals vary by pharmacy and location. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, limited vaccine is offered to 16 Hy-Vee location across the state, 92 Jewel-Osco locations, 17 Kroger locations, six Mariano’s locations and 170 Walgreens locations.

Hy-Vee pharmacies began administering vaccine about three weeks ago, Gayman said, so the first round of folks are about ready to receive their second dose. Pharmacies vaccinate between 50 to 100 people per day depending on Hy-Vee locations and hours, she said.

A new feature on the Hy-Vee registration portal as of Tuesday includes the chance to sign up for a specific date and time for both the first dose and the second dose, she said. Those who’ve already received their first dose will get notified directly from their Hy-Vee pharmacy when to come in for their second.

Hy-Vee’s online registration system schedules appointments up to five days out, so if someone attempts to schedule an appointment at any time online and sees “no appointments available,” that doesn’t mean there won’t be more available if they check back in later, on the sixth day or beyond, for instance.

She said she’s not heard of the appointments only being open at midnight and filing up by 12:05 a.m.

“I don’t know where the midnight thing is coming from, because that’s not something in our operations side that we’ve ever had in place,” Gayman said, referring to when new appointments become available during the day.

In early December, Hy-Vee announced they were hiring 1,000 additional pharmacy technicians throughout the eight states it operations in to help streamline vaccine rollout, and they’re still hiring, Gayman said. Applications can be found at http://www.hy-vee.com/careers.

Gayman said she feels for seniors or others who are having difficulties navigating the online registration system, but Hy-Vee is asking people not to call their pharmacy lines with questions because pharmacy staff don’t actually have access to the online portal on the back end, and can’t set up appointments over the phone.

Hy-Vee has a customer care line at 1-800-772-4098 Gayman encourages people to use, and while the customer care team also can’t book appointments over the phone, they may be able to help direct those calling on how to navigate the online system or access other resources to aid them.

If you need help registering

Elder Care Services of DeKalb County is one such aid, said Roxanne Nuttall, care coordinator supervisor who’s been with the organization for 11 years.

“We just started collaborating last week with the health department to try to get [seniors] the vaccine because we know a lot of them don’t have access to the internet or laptops,” Nuttall said. “And then also once they do get the vaccine [appointment], the transportation issue. We’re contacting all of our participants first to see who wants a vaccine.”

Elder Care Services provides resources to about 600 DeKalb County residents 60 and older who often require home health care or other resources to ensure their quality of life in the county. If someone is unsure of how to register or access any of the various online portals through the county, whether the health department, Northwestern Medicine or various pharmacies, you need not be a client of Elder Care Services to seek their help.

Nuttall said to call the 815-758-6550 to get in touch with someone who can help.

When in doubt, Gayman said, reach out to neighbors or family members who may be able to help with online registration.

Now that she’s received the first coveted dose, Moroz said she feels better but “still very apprehensive.”

“I have COPD, I have diabetes, I’m old,” she said. “I have a lot of health issues. So I do go grocery shopping, but granted I don’t go anywhere without my mask. I don’t talk to people in the store, I stay within my bubble.”

She reiterated a phrase echoed throughout the region: Be patient.

“Have patience,” Moroz said. “I’m pretty patient but my friend has anxiety and she takes medicine for that. She’s a complete wreck. And I don’t think that elderly people that have health issues should have to get up at midnight to try to make an appointment, and if you don’t type within five minutes you’re kicked out.”

Read more at http://www.shawlocal.com/news: No walk-ins allowed: Health officials review what to expect for 1st COVID-19 vaccine dose

This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.

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