Marcus felt like one of the lucky ones — she was able to score an appointment a day after the District began vaccinating people 65 and older. But it wasn’t easy. The first several times she finished filling out the online questionnaire, and found a location that had an available appointment, it disappeared before she could click to secure it. But she pressed on, excited to get the vaccine so she could soon safely visit her 9-month-old grandson in New York City.
D.C. has experienced a crush of people seeking vaccines, with all 6,700 appointments quickly snapped up this past week, when the city expanded vaccination to people 65 and older.
In the meantime, long lines have been just one hurdle some seniors — who are especially at risk for getting complications from covid-19 and have a higher risk of dying from it — have faced getting the coronavirus shot this past week. Like Marcus, many said booking the appointment online was laborious and frustrating. Others didn’t know the vaccine was available, or had no sense of how or when to sign up.
D.C. Council members and health advocates debated whether appointments should be reserved for low-income residents or communities of color, who they worried were getting left behind in the city’s vaccination process. Data released by the city on Friday showed wide disparities in who booked vaccine appointments; 2,465 residents of Ward 3, which has had the fewest incidences of the virus, booked appointments, compared with a total of 291 for residents in harder-hit Wards 7 and 8.
“Even within the senior population, you have high rates of chronic disease among Black and Brown seniors, and those people should have been first,” said Ambrose Lane Jr., the chair of the Health Alliance Network, a group focused on health disparities east of the Anacostia River. “Period.”
D.C. health director LaQuandra Nesbitt told the D.C. Council this past week that she found the idea of reserving vaccines for certain populations inconceivable. But on Friday, officials announced that they would open 4,309 additional appointments on Saturday morning for residents in Wards 1, 4, 5, 7 and 8 who are 65 and older or health care workers — areas that have higher populations of communities of color — and another 1,436 appointments on Monday citywide.
On Tuesday, the line of people waiting outside the senior center in a gentrifying part of majority Black Ward 5, snaked around the parking lot, up an embankment, and down a sidewalk. Many seniors stood with walkers, canes, and crutches; one woman brought a stool. The line appeared to be caused by paperwork that needed to be filled out inside.
Safeway, which distributed the vaccine at the center, referred questions to D.C. health officials. D.C. health officials did not respond to requests for comment about the line, or whether other sites also have had long waits.
Ryan Grant, 78, stood in line with his daughter, while his wife waited in the car. For him, the vaccine meant a return to some of his hobbies, including going to the museum and the library.
He was disappointed by the line, though.
“Somehow they set the appointments but they couldn’t make their commitment to meeting it in a reasonable time,” said Grant, who lives in nearby Ivy City. “I think they could have done better in organizing.”
Further down in line was Ellen Thrasher, 71. She drove 45 minutes from Upper Northwest for her appointment. And she said it took her just a little longer than that to book it online.
“I think you have to be fairly tenacious, and the thought occurred to me that if you did not have some basic computer skills, it could be very, very difficult for you because it’s not intuitive,” Thrasher said of the booking process.
She hoped that neither the challenging system nor the wait deterred people from getting the vaccine. And she didn’t mind standing in line, either — by the time she got her vaccine, nearly two hours later, she had made two new friends.
As people exited the building, freshly vaccinated, some called out to those waiting in line and gave the thumbs-up sign. “It’s worth it,” one woman said on her way out.
Loreen McNair, 66, and her son Jonathan McNair could see the people leaving the building from her spot toward the end of the line.
“I'm excited to see her go through this process,” said her son, 31, who serves as the communications director for council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5). “It’s good to see so many people come out.”
McNair booked his mother’s appointment using the city’s online portal, calling the experience “seamless.”
“There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to get it,” Loreen McNair said of the vaccine — although some in her family had their doubts about signing up.
But a few days later and five minutes away at a Giant grocery store, a different scene illustrated the issue the city still faces in vaccinating its older population. Early Thursday morning, during the store’s senior shopping time, some said they either struggled to make appointments or didn’t even know there were appointments available.
Charlene McCullers, a 75-year-old retired legal secretary, pulled on latex gloves to choose a shopping cart. She said she logged on Wednesday and was “very disappointed” to find no appointments available — and, to make matters worse, no information about when to try to get one again.
Her social circle is abuzz with tips, some reliable and some not, on how to get the vaccine. A cousin found a slot on Monday for the following Sunday, but by the time he checked his calendar, it had disappeared.
“My cousin and I joked that we would cruise the pharmacies late at night,” she said, referring to the off chance that there would be unclaimed doses that pharmacists would give out to prevent them from going to waste.
Samuel Jones, 65, who was also at the Giant, said he struggled to book an appointment as well. He called the number set up by the District to make an appointment on Monday, but all the spots were booked. He filled out an online form that indicated he would get an alert when a new round of appointments became available, and is waiting for a response.
He was surprised to hear vaccines were being administered down the road at Model Cities, and he was uncertain about what that would mean for him.
“I’m happy I can get it,” he said. “I still don’t know where to get it.”
Robert Taraschi, 70, an artist, had gotten a vaccination appointment after eight attempts online, reentering his information each time. He showed up at Model Cities on Tuesday but decided to go home after seeing full waiting rooms, frazzled employees and one person lying on a gurney.
“What I saw were a lot of people with their hair on fire and I just thought, no, I can come back at another time,” he said.
But before leaving, Taraschi scheduled another appointment at the senior center for Saturday, when he hopes the process will be more streamlined.
“It took two and a quarter hours just to sign up” the first time, he said. “If you’re not computer confident, which most seniors are not, you’re going to get frustrated and scared and just not do it, and that’s tragic.”