The process feels like something between trying to nab highly sought-after Beyoncé tickets and gladiatorial combat.
2021 has made being a computer whiz a matter of life and death. Shame on America for asking seniors to beta test bad vaccine logistics software.
We designed this guide to help. There are ways to get assistance if you need it, and strategies to conquer the process if you’re persistent.
The short supply of vaccine is only partly to blame for our current chaos. It’s a case study in how more technology is not always the answer.
There are just too many decentralized, overlapping vaccine websites. State governments created systems, many ignoring basics like inventory alerts we’ve come to expect from shopping websites. Local governments made their own too, sometimes just repurposing websites for selling community theater tickets. Then hospitals and clinics offer shots through their existing appointment systems and patient portals.
And starting this week, there will be even more places you need to look for appointments online. Pharmacy chains including CVS and Walgreens are beginning to distribute vaccine supply they’re getting directly from the federal government. In many places, you’ll have to call or go through their individual websites and apps to secure these shots.
Some seniors are adept at extreme online shopping and have turned juggling all these appointment interfaces into a job. But they’re in the minority: An estimated 42 percent of Americans over the age of 65 don’t even have a wired broadband Internet connection at home, according to a new report. Online vaccine appointment systems are particularly under-serving minority and low-income communities.
If you’re helping a senior friend, you’re awesome. But Thomas Kamber, executive director of the nonprofit Older Adults Technology Services, reminded me the job comes with serious responsibility for the likely very stressed-out person you’re helping. “It’s incredibly important to take 30 minutes before you get on the phone to spend some time researching what you’re doing,” he said.
I’ve learned a lot from helping my parents navigate appointments in Massachusetts. Pretty much every state and county process is different, so I’ve also been listening to professionals and volunteers helping seniors secure appointments in New York, New Jersey, Florida and California. If you’ve mastered your local system, I’d like to hear from you, too, via email or my Washington Post Help Desk.
“It pays to be persistent, aggressive, and to follow up,” says Richard Adler, 78, chair of the steering committee at Senior Planet Avenidas, a tech-focused community center in Palo Alto, Calif. Seniors often blame themselves for computer problems, says Adler, but “they shouldn’t feel that way in this case.”
Persistence worked for my parents, who finally nabbed appointments by understanding when and how to grab new slots right as they arrived.
This guide starts with the basics. Keep moving down the list to more advanced suggestions and techniques that might help you increase the chances of getting your slot sooner rather than later.
Begin with the right frame of mind — and paperwork
The system isn’t working as it should, and it’s not your fault.
You might be lucky: Some people are hearing directly from clinics and hospitals to book appointments for existing patients.
Everyone else will have to learn a patchwork of state, local, hospital and pharmacy websites, apps and phone lines. On some of them, you may have to type in a bunch of information to even know if there are new appointments available. Your expectation should be that getting through this will take multiple attempts.
Tip: Experiment. Job No. 1 is just to figure out how the system works. I repeatedly clicked through websites — even when they said they didn’t have any appointments available — just to learn what sort of information we’d have to enter. My mom got up early and pressed reload once every few minutes for hours to see when new appointments came online.
Tip: Prepare for red tape. You’re likely going to have to enter in lots of personal information, including your ID, address and various codes from medical insurance cards. Gather up all of this before you start. (Below I’ve got more advice on how to avoid passing this sensitive info along to scammers.)
You don’t necessarily need fancy computer skills
If you think faster than you mouse, there’s help available. Across the United States, family, friends and “vaccine angel” volunteers are opening their hearts and their tech skills to the people who need it.
Tip: Locate help at the library. If you can’t connect with help from a senior center or church, call your local public library. Ask to speak to a reference librarian, or another librarian on duty. They are usually plugged in to community resources, and many libraries even host their own awesome tech support clinics.
Tip: There’s almost always a phone number. Some states are telling people to use the Web and not call if at all possible. But if you need it, there usually is some phone help available. Some states, like Massachusetts, even have hotlines just to help seniors book appointments. The line could be busy, or keep you on hold for a long time — but it’s worth your patience.
Tip: You’ll likely need email to register online. You’ll use it to set up an account and receive confirmation of your appointment. If someone else is helping you book an appointment, you might need to share identity verification codes sent to your email (or over text message to your phone).
I’ve seen some places also ask you to photograph and upload a copy of your insurance card, but they often let you proceed with a booking even if you don’t.
Tip: A smartphone might speed up your appointment. A provider might ask you to bring proof of your reservation to the vaccination site in the form of an email on your smartphone. But you can also print it out, or forward the email to someone else to print and mail to you.
In some communities, vaccination sites are also asking people to scan what are called QR codes with a smartphone when they arrive. Doing so pops up a screen on the smartphone where you have to enter more information. QR codes are just fancy bar codes: Turn on your camera app and point it toward the sign with the code. But if you don’t have a smartphone, don’t sweat it — just ask to fill out the form by hand.
Information is your most valuable tool
The people having the most success getting appointments are the ones with the best information.
Vaccine appointments work a lot like how concert tickets get sold — released in bunches at a time and usually snapped up right away by people who knew they were coming.
So how do you know when and where vaccine slots are coming?
Tip: Sign up for alerts. State and local governments, hospitals and even pharmacies may have websites where you can enter an email or phone number to have them reach out with information. These are underwhelming in many places, just letting you know when you’re eligible for a shot. But some may evolve: D.C.'s alerts currently say when they’ll be posting new appointments but soon should be more personalized. Walgreens tells me it eventually hopes to be able to send people alerts about when there are appointments accessible near them.
Tip: Hunt for new-stock information. Some vaccine centers, like the Publix pharmacies doling out shots in Florida, post new appointments at 7 a.m. each day. Local newspapers and TV stations often have useful intelligence. Sometimes local officials publish updates on Twitter accounts, too.
Friends can also be a resource, if they’re passing along firsthand knowledge. But be extra skeptical of anything you read on Facebook, which is rife with misinformation — if someone shares something surprising, ask how they know it is true.
Tip: Look for crowdsourced information. In some places, community groups are trying to help by creating their own websites with maps and updated availability. Just remember they’re relying on other people, not official sources, to stay updated. Ones I’ve spotted include:
Tip: Don’t forget the old-fashioned phone call. Humans often have more up-to-date information than websites. That’s the recommendation I heard from the makers of VaccinateCA, the community-made help site in California. They’ve got volunteers calling pharmacies and other vaccine sites to find out when they get new stock. Some midsize pharmacies, they’ve found, aren’t getting booked up because they’ve fallen through the cracks of the online systems.
Be on alert for fraud
You’re right to worry that somebody might be trying to take advantage of the confusion around vaccines to steal your identity or trick you out of money. Unfortunately, some of the usual red flags won’t necessarily help you — even some official websites appear sketchy to me.
Tip: Start with trusted sources of information. Rather than click on links sent to you via email or Facebook, go straight to the source. AARP publishes vetted links to official government vaccine sites for every state here: aarp.org/vaccineinfo. The Washington Post’s interactive vaccine tracker also has links to government information, while our vaccine FAQ offers well-researched answers to questions about vaccine safety and science.
Tip: If you weren’t expecting a message, be skeptical. In some cases, you may hear from a local vaccine program, clinic or pharmacy over email and even text message. But if you’re not 100 percent certain it is legitimate, pause before you click. It never hurts to call your local health department, doctor or pharmacy and ask to confirm. Nobody should be selling you special access to the vaccine.
Tip: Look for the lock. When you’re on a registration site asking you to enter private information, look in the top of your browser, immediately to the left of the Web address. There you should see an icon of a lock, indicating your information is being encrypted in a way that keeps hackers from peering in.
Use tech to move faster
So long as the vaccine remains in short supply, getting an appointment is going to be competitive. Beware disappearing appointment times: Many sites won’t actually hold a time slot for you as you type in all the required personal information.
So borrow some techniques from the tech-savvy people who snap up concert tickets and high-demand gifts like the PlayStation 5.
Tip: Pre-fill your information. On popular shopping sites, you save your address and credit card number to make checkout go quickly. That’s what you also want when you’re trying to nab an appointment before it gets taken by someone else.
Some but not all vaccine appointment sites will let you “preregister,” or create an account to enter in contact and insurance information. At pharmacies including Walgreens, you can create a customer account profile, though that won’t necessarily let you pre-fill all the health questions required by local officials.
Tip: Type fast. Or, avoid typing as much as possible. Save all your critical information in a word processing document on your computer. Then when the time comes, you can copy and paste it into the vaccine appointment website.
If you want to be even faster, install an automatic form-filling extension for your browser, such as Autofill for Chrome. You can tell it to memorize how you fill out fields on the appointment website, and then it will fill them automatically whenever you pull it up.
Tip: Automate redialing. In some places, booking appointments happens primarily over phone lines … which seem to always be busy when you call. Advanced smartphone users can download an app that helps call back a busy line faster than you could press the buttons on your own. I heard a success story with one called Auto Redial, though use caution and check reviews for these apps before spending your money on them.
Tip: Look out for new technologies. The website vaxstandby.com is trying to create a way to connect people seeking a vaccination with pharmacies and clinics with excess supply. Its makers tell me it’s still just a concept, but it’s encouraging to know inventors and civic-minded people are trying to make the vaccine rollout work better for everyone.