David Zalles, 82, spent an hour on Montgomery County’s website before he realized all the appointments to get the coronavirus vaccine were already booked.
Arlene and Carl Taraschi of Burlington County preregistered on New Jersey’s website at the same time, but got appointments more than two months apart.
And 67-year-old Glenn Davis of Phoenixville contacted multiple vaccine providers but hit dead ends when he tried to make an appointment.
Five weeks after the coronavirus vaccine rollout began nationwide, millions are now eligible to get the shots in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. But the states are still receiving far fewer doses than they need, and with no centralized system for administering them, confusion and frustration reign among the vaccine-hungry public.
This week, Pennsylvania expanded vaccine eligibility to adults 65 and up, and Philadelphia expanded to those 75 and older. New Jersey opened eligibility to anyone 65 and older last week. In all three places, people with high-risk conditions are also now eligible.
The expansions occurred without any increase in the vaccine supply, and they highlight a patchwork system, unsupported by the federal government, that is stymieing residents and remains hamstrung by the nation’s limited vaccine supply.
“It seems to be more word-of-mouth as to what’s going on,” said Davis, who has Type 2 diabetes. He tried to use Pennsylvania’s vaccine provider map and called a pharmacy, but got nowhere. “It should be a front-page thing from the state saying: This is where we’re at, this is what’s going to happen.”
Davis is among many Pennsylvania and New Jersey residents who have been unable to make appointments, struggle to find information, or are confused about what to do. In Philadelphia, which is distributing vaccines separately from the state, residents were without an official preregistration site until Thursday, when it came online at phila.gov/vaccineinterest. In both states, people are waiting for notifications, joining waiting lines, and in some cases standing in lines or even searching for leftover doses.
Pennsylvania and Philadelphia have no plans for a centralized scheduling system, though the state will facilitate registration for mass vaccination clinics once they open, and don’t currently have phone hotlines.
State and local health officials have asked the public for patience and said it will take months before most people can be inoculated.
“The change in … eligibility has not brought additional vaccines to our county,” Chester County spokesperson Becky Brain said Wednesday. “In fact, we have been told to expect vaccine shortages.”
While some have managed to get appointments, they’re a small fraction of the 3.5 million Pennsylvanians and 4.5 million New Jerseyans eligible for the shots — and represent fewer than half the number of doses delivered to the states, according to CDC data. Each recipient also needs a second dose in order for the shots to be effective; state officials say those appointments should be scheduled on the day people receive their first injections.
As of Wednesday, 454,879 first doses had been administered in Pennsylvania, and as of Thursday, 398,862 in New Jersey. Most have gone to health-care workers and nursing home residents in the top-priority group.
“This has been really confusing and very frustrating for a lot of people,” Montgomery County Commissioners’ Chair Val Arkoosh, a physician, said this week. “I don’t want to create false expectations: Very few places have received vaccine, and they have received very few doses.”
No phone hotlines, multiple websites
Most residents of Pennsylvania and New Jersey have to individually call or email vaccine providers to arrange appointments. In some counties, residents can register to be notified when the shots are available. But there aren’t enough appointments, so most people don’t get an immediate response. (Officials have assured anyone who preregisters that they will receive an email when it’s time.)
The Philadelphia website launched Thursday will allow individuals and employers to sign up to receive an email when they are eligible to make an appointment, but the website itself will not schedule vaccinations.
The city is also partnering with third-party organizations to distribute vaccinations, and Rite-Aid is helping inoculate health-care workers. But that has led to more confusion, such as complaints about ineligible residents receiving the vaccine and residents mistaking an online vaccine registration set up by a private organization, Philly Fighting Covid, for an official city sign-up.
In New Jersey, while people wait for emails from the state’s preregistration system, they can also call vaccination sites for appointments. Some county sites and hospitals also have their own registration systems.
The Taraschis, who live in Delanco, received notice to schedule their appointments a week after signing up on the state website. But despite starting the process at the same time, 77-year-old Arlene is set to get her vaccine about nine weeks sooner than her 78-year-old husband; he could only get an appointment in April.
Neither state has a phone hotline for those without computer access, but the New Jersey Health Department will launch one next week, staffed with people who can answer questions. For now, New Jerseyans can call 1-855-568-0545 for an automated system that provides information. Health officials have also suggested people call local pharmacies for help.
Pennsylvania residents who can’t access the online map of providers can call the Department of Health at 1-877-724-3258, or their county health departments.
Due to the unpredictability of the vaccine supply from the federal government, officials can’t predict when the next phases of the rollout will start, adding to the public’s uncertainty.
Susan Stein, 69, of Philadelphia, said she would have preferred if officials had set a date when the vaccine would be easily available, even if it wasn’t until June.
”I wouldn’t like it, but at least I’d know to plan for that,” she said. Instead, she said, she spent hours contacting sites outside the city before finally securing an appointment for Saturday.
Long wait times ahead
Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley acknowledged that turbulence was inevitable.
“Many people are eager to be vaccinated and that’s a very good thing,” he said this week. “But it’s simply going to take months for us to vaccinate everybody.”
Philadelphia officials said essential workers should wait to hear about vaccination plans from their employers, and said residents over 75 or with medical conditions could ask their doctors if they have doses available.
They also said hospitals should be calling patients, but warned that even people currently eligible may wait weeks or months.
“It’s our expectation that [hospitals] will do that as they can, but it’s not our top priority,” Health Department spokesperson James Garrow said in an email. The city is still focused on vaccinating health-care workers, nursing home residents and staff, first responders, and people in congregate care settings.
Some who did try calling their doctors said they got nowhere. Ian Griffith, a Northern Liberties resident who has heart disease and hypertension, said his doctor’s office told him that they had heard nothing from the city and had no plans to vaccinate patients. “As far as they were concerned, they weren’t going to have any role at all,” Griffith said.
‘We couldn’t get any information’
There is also a race for leftover shots, which sites in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have been instructed to administer so that no doses of the time- and temperature-sensitive vaccine go to waste. Most sites in the Garden State end up with a daily waiting list, said Dawn Thomas of the Department of Health.
New Jersey health officials said they are receiving about 100,000 doses per week, then distributing them to counties, health-care providers, or megasites managed by the state. The vaccines are also available at venues like pharmacies and county-run clinics. “There will be more vaccine with each coming week and month,” Thomas said in an email.
Some residents who were relieved to become eligible in Pennsylvania this week found dead ends as they tried to use the state’s map of vaccine providers. Many sites listed in the Philadelphia suburbs ask callers to send emails inquiring about appointments or don’t offer an option to speak to a person on the phone. Others say they’re simply booked up or out of doses.
Department of Health spokesperson Maggi Barton said providers were working as quickly as possible.
“We know that many Pennsylvanians are eager to get the COVID-19 vaccine,” she said.
Richard Corbett, 79, of Dresher, Montgomery County, got his first shot in Philadelphia through Veterans Affairs last week, but figuring out how his 75-year-old wife could get it was more challenging.
“We were scouring the internet and calling friends and we just couldn’t get any information,” he said.
They preregistered her on the county website and combed through a list of local providers. They emailed a pharmacy and never heard back; they tried a hospital and were turned away. After hours of searching, she got an appointment farther from home — in Northampton County, through the City of Bethlehem Health Bureau — for late February.
The couple were left wondering why the process was so confusing and disorganized.
“It all just seems so helter-skelter,” Corbett said.
Staff writer Frank Kummer contributed to this article.