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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. vaccine registrations freeze up, then fill up on first day for residents with underlying conditions

Vice President Harris watches a woman receive a coronavirus vaccination during a visit to the pharmacy of a Giant Foods grocery store Thursday. She was joined by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (center, rear) and D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt (right, rear). (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

A glitch in the District’s coronavirus vaccine registration system caused it to freeze up Thursday amid a flood of submissions on the first day of eligibility for people in hard-hit areas who have underlying health conditions.

On a day when Vice President Harris showed up to observe vaccinations inside a Southeast Washington pharmacy, an unknown number of qualified residents were locked out from registering for an appointment. City health officials blamed “a technical review failure,” which sparked more confusion in what has been a frustrating vaccination process in the Washington region.

D.C. residents with underlying conditions who live in Zip codes targeted because of their high rates of infections became eligible to register at 9 a.m. Thursday. But many of them couldn’t, receiving an erroneous message indicating the city was still only vaccinating elderly residents and essential workers in certain occupations.

By 10:40 a.m., all 4,350 appointments available Thursday for the newly eligible category of residents had been booked. The Health Department said Thursday afternoon that the problem was fixed and announced that an extra 3,500 appointments would be available to newly eligible residents on Saturday, on top of 4,350 slots available Friday.

The Saturday appointments were made possible by setting aside vaccine doses that had been allotted for next week, officials said.

“We know how stressful of a time this is, and we regret that this unfortunate situation occurred on a day when many of our residents with chronic health conditions were newly eligible for vaccination appointments,” D.C. health officials said in a statement. The statement added that the Health Department is working to build extra capacity on the portal to handle the “tens of thousands of residents newly eligible for the vaccine this week.”

The appointments were supposed to have gone to residents who live in priority areas, mostly in Wards 5, 7 and 8, and who have certain underlying conditions. Those conditions include asthma, chronic lung diseases, congenital heart disease, diabetes, liver disease, HIV, sickle cell disease, and intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Residents in the targeted Zip codes who are pregnant or obese, with a body mass index higher than 30, also are newly eligible.

However, many of them were unable to get through to the Health Department’s registration site Thursday, fueling anxieties in a region where health officials are worried about another surge of infections after several cases of more-transmissible coronavirus variants have been detected in recent weeks.

Coronavirus cases and metrics in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

“Every screen kept failing,” said Jenn Kauffman, 41, who has asthma and set several alarms before the 9 a.m. window for the new registrations so she could be ready to sign up.

Kauffman, who lives in one of the target Zip codes in Northwest D.C., said she finally secured an appointment by phone just before the city announced all slots had been taken.

The District, Maryland and Virginia on Thursday recorded 3,191 new coronavirus infections, a slight jump amid what has been a decline in cases across the region in recent weeks. That downward trend prompted Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam earlier this week to lift some restrictions on mass gatherings. Among other things, Northam (D) raised the limit on outdoor gatherings from 10 to 25 people and allowed outdoor entertainment venues to operate at 30 percent capacity.

In Maryland, officials opened the state’s third mass vaccination site Thursday, administering several hundred doses at a clinic inside Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said the number of shots available there soon will climb to 2,000 each day.

“It’s going to be a big boost to our statewide efforts,” Hogan said, adding that recent declines in caseloads are an encouraging sign amid a desire to further lift restrictions.

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) did so Thursday, aligning his county with state guidelines that allow establishments that had been limited to 25 percent capacity to go up to 50 percent.

But coronavirus-related deaths in the region have continued, with the District passing the 1,000 mark this week and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announcing that her older sister Mercia Bowser was among the latest fatalities.

Mercia Bowser, sister of D.C. mayor, dies of coronavirus at age 64

On social media Thursday, scores of newly eligible D.C. residents who had scrambled to get a vaccine appointment complained they were not able to do so, either online or through the Health Department’s call center.

Several residents who contacted The Washington Post said it appeared as if the city had not updated its registration options to include those with underlying conditions.

Sandra Nelson, whose family lives in a priority Zip code just north of Petworth, said she and two friends tried multiple times Thursday morning to register her husband, Jack Nelson, who has diabetes, for a vaccine appointment.

Each time they tried, a message on the registration website informed them that Nelson, 43, was not eligible.

Sandra Nelson said her family has been on edge throughout the pandemic, restricting themselves to seeing a select group of friends, including one family whose 17-year-old daughter has a chronic lung condition and neurological disorder that also make her more vulnerable.

“We’ve been really looking forward to the vaccine,” Nelson said. “Obviously, we need to be extraordinarily careful, all of us.”

The confusion unfolded as Harris visited a Giant pharmacy in Ward 8 to tout the Biden administration’s Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, which delivers vaccine doses directly to 7,000 pharmacies nationwide to cover elderly residents in broader swaths of the country.

Harris offered words of encouragement to Brenda Thompson, 69, as she received her second dose in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Southeast Washington hit hard by the virus but that has among the city’s lowest vaccination rates. Just 1,650 elderly Ward 8 residents have received at least one dose so far, compared with 7,511 in more affluent Ward 3, city records show.

“I get to see my great-grandson,” Thompson said with her hands together after getting her shot.

She hasn’t seen the 5-year-old since last summer, she said. He keeps asking when the two will reunite.

Mobile clinics, free rides have done little so far to improve vaccine equity in D.C. region

“So there’s so many reasons to get vaccinated, right, so we can all get back to seeing all of our family members and being together,” Harris said.

Thompson, who lives in Ward 6, said she initially was unable to register online.

She first tried to book an appointment on her phone because her computer wasn’t working, but she said it was too difficult. So, the next time appointments were available, she woke up early and drove to her brother’s house to use his computer as appointments became available. It took two tries.

“I want to live,” Thompson said. “I got it because I want to live.”

That yearning fueled Thursday’s frustrations over the city’s frozen registration portal.

Susana Castillo, a Bowser spokeswoman, said the portal was overwhelmed by the huge influx of registrations.

“It’s just high volume, a lot of traffic in the website,” Castillo said. “It’s not that we didn’t update the website with the option of medical conditions.”

City lawmakers disputed that assessment, saying it seemed clear the online portal had not been updated.

“From the message people were getting, I know [they] didn’t update the website, because the message was old — it says we’re only doing over 65 and particular employee groups, which is not the case,” said D.C. Council member Christina Henderson (I-At Large), who received a flurry of emails and texts Thursday from frustrated constituents. “So if you updated the website and you didn’t update this message, it wasn’t a complete update.”

Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) said she also heard from several residents who were unable to successfully register Thursday. She asked city officials how they will be better prepared for a similar influx of residents trying to make appointments Friday.

“D.C. Health keeps saying it’s volume — and I know at this point from what people have showed me that’s not accurate,” Silverman said. “It’s clear the system was not updated. . . . They need to give answers; we need to understand what will happen tomorrow.”

District residents with underlying health conditions in the following Zip codes are eligible to register for appointments: 20422, 20011, 20017, 20018, 20002, 20001, 20019, 20020, 20032 and 20593.

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Ovetta Wiggins and Erin Cox contributed to this report.

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Coronavirus news in D.C., Virginia and Maryland

The latest: More than two years into the pandemic, covid cases in the D.C. region are rising again, , while liberal Montgomery County asks who deserves credit for its robust covid response. Meanwhile, Black funeral directors still face a daunting amount of deaths from covid and the omicron wave has had an unequal toll in the DMV.

At-home tests: Here’s how to use at-home covid tests, where to find them and how they differ from PCR tests.

Mapping the spread: Tens of thousands have died in the local region and nationwide cases number in the hundreds of thousands.

Omicron: Remaining covid restrictions in the D.C.-area, plus a breakdown of variant symptoms and mask recommendations.

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