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Scheduling issues, equity concerns as DC opens COVID-19 vaccine registration to seniors

Scheduling issues, equity concerns as DC opens COVID vaccine registration to seniors
Scheduling issues, equity concerns as DC opens COVID vaccine registration to seniors
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The District's COVID-19 vaccine registration website saw a rush of activity on Monday, as the city announced seniors 65 years old and older could begin signing up to get their shots. DC Mayor Muriel Bowser said it took just a few hours for the 6,700 appointments available this week to be booked up.

"In one sense that's a good thing, but it also demonstrates the scarcity of the vaccine," said Bowser.

Now, senior citizens have begun contacting Seven On Your Side to voice their frustrations about the process.

One 77-year-old DC resident said she was thrilled when she was able to register online for a vaccine appointment at La Clinica Del Pueblo in Columbia Heights. Then the very next day, an employee from that clinic called to tell her the vaccine was not yet ready at their site, and they would have to cancel her appointment.

ABC7 reached out to La Clinica Del Pueblo and the DC Health Department to find out what happened.

"We had a bumpy start, with some people who were scheduled who we weren't able to see," admits La Clinica Del Pueblo Executive Director Catalina Sol.

Sol said that bumpy start can be traced to the District's website for vaccination registration, which opened to DC seniors on Monday. She says the website somehow allowed too many people to sign up for appointments at La Clinica Del Pueblo, so the clinic ended up getting overbooked.

"Unfortunately we had a scheduling glitch, which was essentially about more appointments being available than we actually had capacity for," said Sol. "And we are now working very hard to reschedule them as quickly as we can. We are committed to vaccinating those people."

RELATED: D.C. residents 65 and older can now register for vaccine

During the mayor's news conference on Wednesday, DC Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt was asked about technical glitches in the vaccine sign-up system.

"We received lots of feedback on the process, and we were anticipating receiving feedback on the process. I actually went into the field yesterday to a number of the sites, to be able to speak to seniors beyond what we received via email, and what was provided to us from constituents, and what we've heard from you all as reporters," said Dr. Nesbitt. "All of it is great feedback for us to share with our chief technology office who is working with the developers of this system, to be able to resolve these issues permanently before the system opens back up for individuals to make appointments."

But ABC7 has learned that's not the only vaccine-related problem facing the largely Latino community that La Clinica Del Pueblo typically serves.

"Our own patients are having difficulties being able to access the vaccine website, because they don't have email. They're not able to schedule as easily as someone who speaks English and has access to a phone and email," Sol explained.

When ABC7 was at La Clinica Del Pueblo on Thursday afternoon, most of the people we saw showing up for vaccine appointments were white.

DC Council Member Kenyan McDuffie said he's heard similar stories from Black senior citizens who live in Wards Five, Seven, and Eight.

"We have to be working off the assumption that there will be some residents that have barriers to getting online to register, or even being able to get off work to register, and the ability to schedule a vaccine is very important," said McDuffie. "We've got senior citizens who've driven past certain sites, and wondered why they are not able to get the vaccine, and they see there are people who don't look like their neighbors, who are not folks who live next door to them, but are able to access the vaccines in their communities."

He says it's an equity issue that must be addressed.

McDuffie is particularly concerned because the city's Hispanic and African American communities have been hardest hit by the coronavirus.

"We need to account for that when we think about how the vaccine is distributed, so that those individuals, largely minorities who live in certain communities that have been devastated by this virus, we need to meet them where they are and not rely on their ability to be able to go online and get an appointment," said McDuffie.

McDuffie said he's pushing for changes to the city's vaccine registration system.

"We really want to make sure the process in place for scheduling appointments is modified to account for those communities and people who live in the zip codes that have been hardest hit by the pandemic," he said. "Black and brown residents who have been hardest hit, we need to be able to reserve some appointments for them."

The system is currently set up on a first-come, first-serve basis, with seniors able to book vaccine appointments at any participating location throughout the city -- regardless of where they live.

During Mayor Bowser's press briefing on Wednesday, Dr. Nesbitt was also asked what DC Health is doing to ensure that "internet savvy" seniors aren't able to book up all available vaccination appointments.

"In terms of whether or not there is a competitive advantage for people calling in over the phone, the call takers access the portal and make the appointment, so it's essentially having someone assist you with going through the internet process. And we have bolstered the number of people who are working in the call center to assist people in making their appointments," said Dr. Nesbitt.

She said the city has doubled the number of people working in the call center.

Yet ABC7 heard from one senior who tried to reach the call center after she ran into a glitch on the vaccine registration website.

"It was utterly ridiculous. There were 180 calls ahead of me. So I left a message to be called back, but they never called me back," she said.

RELATED: Vaccines available versus vaccines administered in DC, Maryland and Virginia

ABC7 reached out to DC Health for answers about both equity concerns and issues with the vaccine registration website. As of Thursday evening, DC Health had not yet provided a response to our questions.

Council Member McDuffie said he has voiced his concerns directly to Dr. Nesbitt. He would like DC Health to consider prioritizing vaccine appointments based on zip code. He said his conversation with Dr. Nesbitt is ongoing, but he's optimistic there will be changes to the vaccine registration system.

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"Dr. Nesbitt acknowledged a number of challenges that are really important. She talked about demand, in making sure that every resident in the District of Columbia who is eligible to receive the vaccine is able to receive the vaccine, and I wholeheartedly support that," he said. "And I really appreciate her efforts, but I also want to make sure those efforts on behalf of the District of Columbia are reaching those communities that have been hardest hit by this pandemic."

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