When Michael Saewitz, 67, tried to sign up for an appointment at the Atlantic City Convention Center COVID-19 vaccination site, the registration system informed him he was number 11,800 in line.
He hasn’t heard back from any local vaccination sites, so he called a number to register for another site in New Jersey, which put him on hold before hanging up on him.
“That’s sort of typical of the whole process,” he said.
Saewitz, who lives in Philadelphia and has a home in New Jersey, has a medical condition that qualifies him for vaccination according to both state and local vaccine eligibility criteria. He is one of many Jewish Philadelphians joining the nationwide lineup for a COVID-19 vaccine. He hasn’t had much luck.
“Early on, I came to the conclusion that it was a very disorganized process, and I kept hearing about friends and family who were able to get appointments, but every time I tried to get one, I would hit a stumbling block,” he said. “The system just was not prepared to handle the number of people that were applying in Pennsylvania and, to a lesser extent, New Jersey.”
Vaccine distribution across the country has been plagued by delays, logistical failures and supply shortages.
Philadelphia’s rollout has garnered particularly negative attention due to the city’s partnership with Philly Fighting Covid, a startup created by a 22-year-old Drexel University student with no experience working in health care. The startup’s disorganized approach, lack of staff training and switch to a for-profit model as reported by WHYY led the city to sever ties with the organization, but not before its registration system caused widespread confusion about vaccine appointments and eligibility.
The differences between Philadelphia’s guidelines and Pennsylvania’s guidelines have also caused confusion among vaccine seekers. Pennsylvania’s Department of Health website states that the commonwealth is in Phase 1A of vaccine distribution and eligible groups include health care workers, Pennsylvanians living in long-term care facilities, people age 65 and older and those age 16-64 with high-risk conditions like cancer.
The Philadelphia Department of Public Health website states that the vaccine is being distributed to people who are eligible in Phase 1A and Phase 1B of the city’s own plan. Phase 1A includes patient-facing health care workers and elderly residents of long-term care facilities, and Phase 1B includes high-risk essential workers, those who work and reside in congregate settings, seniors 75 years and older and people with high-risk medical conditions.
As a result, Philadelphia residents who are eligible under state guidelines but not city guidelines find themselves at a loss. Many who are eligible under both have not been able to get appointments.
Lori Turner, a Center City resident with an immune deficiency that makes her eligible under both city and state guidelines, feels like she has tried every registration option available with no results.
“I’ve signed up for every single waitlist, every single clinic, every single pharmacy where I would be eligible for a vaccine, only to either get a response saying, ‘Thank you so much for signing up for the waitlist,’ or I am not qualified for the category. And that’s been the biggest confusion,” she said.
“It seems every place that you go the category is a little bit different of who they’re actually taking and who they’re not taking. So what the state says versus what the city says versus what the place that’s giving and administering the vaccine says doesn’t seem to align,” she added.
Sallie Gorohoff, 73, lives in Center City and has registered with five different places, including local pharmacies and the State of New Jersey. So far, none have given her a call back.
She thinks Philadelphia and Pennsylvania’s vaccine rollouts have been less efficient than those in other states.
“The thing that’s the most frustrating is when I’m on Facebook or talking to friends, and they’ve been able to get the vaccine,” she said.
Her husband, who is 75 and has a qualifying medical condition, was able to schedule an appointment for his first dose at Penn Medicine, where he is a patient, on Feb. 8.
The Philadelphia Department of Public Health did not respond to a request for comment.
Residents of the counties outside Philadelphia are also experiencing setbacks.
Ilana Ponce has tried to get her parents, who live in Montgomery County, vaccinated because they are both over 65 and diabetic. A contact sent her a link for a local vaccination site and she managed to reserve a spot, only to be told it was a mistake, that the appointments were for people getting their second doses and that if her parents showed up they would be escorted away.
Her parents contacted pharmacies like Walgreens when they heard the vaccines would be distributed there, but were told they weren’t available yet. Now, Ponce is considering driving them to Florida or flying them to Colorado, where she hears people have had more success.
“There is no next step because there’s no information. Nobody knows anything,” she said.
Saewitz said he wouldn’t care if he got an appointment scheduled later in the year, as long as he knew he had a date and a time. He thinks the government has not been proactive enough in reaching out to people to inform them of their eligibility.
“To put the burden on the people to get an appointment is misguided,” he said.
Vaccine appointments haven’t been chaotic for everyone, however.
Federation Housing, which provides affordable living communities for seniors aged 62 and older, asked the city for vaccine priority three months ago. In January, the organization was notified its request would be granted due to the age of its 1,500 residents living in congregate housing.
The city paired the organization with CVS Pharmacy to set up clinics to administer the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at each of its 11 properties at the beginning of February. The city also has allowed Federation Housing’s front-line staff members to receive the vaccine.
“It’s really been a blessing,” said Eric Naftulin, executive director and CEO of Federation Housing.
Connie Berkowitz, a resident at Miriam and Robert Rieder Apartments, got her first dose on Feb. 5 and is looking forward to getting her second.
“My first thing I want to do when I’m fully immune is meet my new great-granddaughter, who was born on the fourth of January,” she said.