The ward-specific openings were part of an effort by the city to rectify wide disparities during the first round of 6,700 vaccinations for older adults. Friday evening, health officials announced they would open an additional 4,309 appointments on Saturday for areas with higher populations of communities of color, and another 1,436 appointments citywide on Monday.
As soon as the website began working at 9 a.m., though, residents reported that it wouldn’t allow them to choose any of the available vaccination centers after they completed the first steps of online registration. Those trying to register through the call center reported not being able to get through.
“We understand the frustration this caused for those who are trying to make an appointment, and we appreciate your patience as we work to get Washingtonians across all eight wards vaccinated,” read the message from the D.C. health department.
Once the technical issues were resolved, health officials advised residents to try again.
“If you previously attempted to get an appointment and you did not receive a notification with a confirmation code, date and location, you must re-register,” the department said.
D.C. Councilmember Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) said elderly residents called him in tears.
“This compounds the disparities when you factor in the digital divide and access issues for less-resourced residents,” McDuffie said. “Every potential hurdle needs to be removed in this process.”
Still, the Friday evening announcement that Wards 1, 4, 5, 7 and 8 would be prioritized over the weekend angered some older adults in other areas who were eager to receive their vaccine.
Councilmember Mary M. Cheh tried to explain the rationale to her constituents in Ward 3. People in her ward had already secured around 40 percent of all vaccination spots, despite having far fewer coronavirus cases and deaths than the areas of the District that are less White and less affluent.
“Our anxiety to get a vaccine right away should not cloud the pursuit of equitable vaccine distribution,” Cheh wrote on Twitter and in a newsletter to residents. “But now, knowing the situation, I believe that our residents will appreciate the reasoning for this opportunity for more vulnerable residents to have access to the vaccine.”
Lifelong Washingtonian Joan Love, 75, had been trying and failing for weeks to sign up for a vaccine appointment through the health department portal. She positioned herself before her computer at 8:45 a.m. Saturday inside the Ward 5 apartment building she lives with about 100 other senior citizens. At exactly 9 a.m., she logged in. She entered her name, her ethnicity, her health insurance information. Every time she reached the next step, the site crashed and kicked her back to the beginning.
“I was hysterical at that point,” said Love, a retired city inspector. “I’m 75 years old, I have underlying ailments, and I was getting very upset.”
She was not alone. Her neighbors in her building, her friends in the city, her sister and brother-in-law across town — all were struggling at the same time to sign up for a vaccine that they, from the isolation of their homes, had been eagerly anticipating for nearly a year.
Love knew she was one of the lucky ones, because unlike many of the city’s seniors, she is technologically savvy. She has a smartphone, computer and access to the Internet. She was more than capable of navigating the website.
“They are still afraid of these types of things,” Love said. “But those that really want it are at a point where they can’t even get into the system.”
After learning that the glitch had been resolved, Love logged on around 11 a.m., selected a test site down the street from her home and scheduled an appointment for Tuesday.
When she got the confirmation email, she said she was “elated.”
“I just think about my poor neighbors,” she said. “Even though I got through, they couldn’t.”
In Virginia, officials said Saturday that the commonwealth has seen a steady increase in vaccine numbers but there are still some lags.
Danny Avula, vaccine coordinator for the Virginia Department of Health, said 20,000 vaccines have been administrated in each of the last three days.
In all, Avula said in a telephone briefing with reporters that the commonwealth has distributed around 943,000 doses and administered 295,000 vaccines: “There is a gap there and that has led to a lot of people asking questions like what’s going on here? Are doses sitting on shelves?”
Avula said a chunk of that vaccine that has been distributed — 226,000 doses — is handled by the federal government, which has contracted with CVS and Walgreens to vaccinate those in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. Avula added there may be a delay in reporting doses that have been administered.
Avula said the state is receiving 100,000 to 110,000 new dosages a week.
“The state is not holding back on any of that vaccine,” he said.
But Secretary of Health and Human Resources Daniel Carey added on the call that “unless there is a significant increase in supply . . . we will be limited by the 110,000 that we are being allocated” to meet the demand for vaccinating the state’s population.
Carey added: “We need to speed up.”
Kyle Swenson contributed to this report.