VAX: I got mine … and it wasn’t easy!

Some hints if you’re still in the hunt.
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For me, last Thursday was like every other day since the COVID vaccines were launched.

Up at 4 a.m. to scan my current set of potential vaccination sites: Maryland state (which controls the 6-Flags mass vaccination site), Anne Arundel County (which controls the sites closest to my home and has us on their digital pre-registration list), local Hospitals (2 of them, also on their “vaccine interest” lists), local grocery chains (2 of them, supplied by AA County) … and, two new additions: CVS and Walgreens.

Conservatively, I estimate that I’ve spent well over 100 hours trying to break through the scheduling sites; have made literally thousands of site visits; and, even learned how to set my browsers to auto-refresh web pages, hoping that trick would supplement my manual click-ons.

Warning: That last hack has a potential downside. You lose your spot in the online queue at some scheduling sites if you refresh their web pages.

Last Thursday, my search priorities were the new additions: Walgreen’s and CVS.

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There were reports that Walgreen’s & CVS were poised to launch on Thursday as part of a Federal Retail Pharmacy program … and, from my situation analyses, I knew that they had a HUGE stockpile of vaccine in inventory that they hadn’t used in nursing homes as part of that Federal Partnership program.

Hint: Pay close attention to news accounts and governors’ press conferences re: news of new channels opening.

Hint: The first hours of the first day that a new channel is opening is particularly important. Initially, your competition for a spot at those locations is only thousands of people, not tens of thousands. But, news spreads quickly and the opportunity window closes fast.

My first try was Walgreen’s where I had to set-up an online account (good marketing on their part) in order to get into their scheduling system.

Message: “Nothing available” yet.

Hint: Be sure that you have online accounts at any potential vaccinators (especially Walgreen’s and Walmart). That saves precious minutes when you initially try to access their vaccination registration sites.

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Next up: CVS.

I tried at 4:00 a.m., 4:30, 5:00, 5:30, 6:00, and 6:30 … CVS was saying that they didn’t yet offer vaccines in Maryland.

Between 6:30 and 7:00 (my next “scheduled” check), I got a lucky break. A friend called to alert me that CVS had just opened up in Maryland.

I immediately connected to the CVS site on 3 computers.

Hint: If you want to register 2 people at the same place, on the same day, you have to work the scheduling site in parallel on multiple computers. If you work sign-ups in sequence, appointment slots will fill and you’re likely to get the 2nd visit on a different day (or not at all).

I got the “due to heavy traffic…” banner and was advised to be patient (yeah, right).

After about 15 minutes, I was ready to declare myself “too late” and give up.

But, then the skies opened. My laptop sprung to life. I was “in” the scheduling system.

The first screen displayed a list of Maryland locations and indicated whether they were “already booked” or “available”.

All of the nearby Annapolis-Baltimore locations were already booked.  There were some places – places that we’d never heard of – that showed availability. We made a mental note of them and clicked “next”.

When asked, we entered our home zip code and got the “no availability within 30 miles” message.

So, I asked wife Kathy to give me the zip code for one of the cities with availability.  She hopped on the iPad to start fetching zip codes.

Hint: It helps to have a teammate since there is a lot of data entry and unpredictable info look-ups.

Hint: Be willing to go out of your local market to a less populated locale.

The “process” is the sum of travel time and vaccination efficiency. Metro vax sites may be close, but often have long processing & wait times. “Rural” vax sites may require some travel time, but “in & out” time at the sites are iusually much faster.

Hint: Know the zip codes of locations where doses might be available … then, enter that zip code instead of your home’s zip code.

Warning: Many of the scheduling systems won’t let you go “back” or enter a different zip code. You may only get one bite at the apple.

BINGO! I entered one of the zip codes (not knowing exactly where Smalltown, Maryland was) and advanced to a “pick your day and time” screen.

Warning: We made it to about this point in the process on some other scheduling sites, picked one of the days that showed availability and then got a “no availability message”. Then we got the same result for all dates indicating availability.

My hunch: so many people are banging on the sites simultaneously that appointment times were getting closed out in nanoseconds.

We picked a day & time and got advanced to screens that asked for disqualifying medical conditions and insurance information.

Warning: Similar to StubHub, the CVS site flashed a message that said they were holding the slot for me, pending the input of additional information.

On another site, we got to about this point in the process, input insurance info and then got the “not available message”.

Apparently, on that site, somebody input their info faster than me and “stole” my slot out from under me.

Not so with CVS

Hint: Have all of your insurance info at your fingertips for fast data entry.

Some sites may even allow you to cut & paste, so have a digital copy of your info on your computer.

Then, the most fulfilling message of all “Your appointment is CONFIRMED

That took care of Kathy – my highest priority.

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Onward, to get Ken an appointment.

The good news: One of our other computers had advanced in the queue and I could immediately start signing up for my appointments with Smalltown’s zip code and my insurance info at my fingertips.

The bad news: All of the appointment slots on Kathy’s day were already taken. The first available slot was 3 days later.

The good news: I didn’t care. That was good enough for me, so I pounced, picked one of those appointments and got the “confirmed” message.

Whew.

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It was a pleasant 50 minute drive to Smalltown, MD — beach / rural area  The CVS was a nice store in a large, recently built strip mall center. The people were nice, they were well organized and we were in & out quickly.  Most of the time was spent in a post-shot observation area to be sure there were no immediate side effects. (There weren’t.)

We were handed information cards with our already scheduled 2nd doses and sent on our way.

Mission accomplished.

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Lessons learned

1. Unless you’re over 75 (over 65 in Florida), don’t count on the state or county registration lists to come to your rescue for another month or two (or three). If you really want an appointment slot (either for yourself or friends & family), you’ve got to get in the game.

2.  Practically all of the scheduling systems suck.  They are either old legacy systems that can’t handles the flood of demand or the complex requirements (e.g. mandatory 2nd shots, people priorities) … or, they’re being cobbled from scratch — essentially half-baked beta versions being released way too soon.  (Note: The CVS system is, based on my experience, the best of breed.)

3. While the process was time-consuming, frustrating and usually fruitless, it was worth the time because – when game time came – I was very familiar with the many scheduling systems’ requirements, gotchas and workarounds. When you finally break thru, time (measured in seconds) is of the essence. You’ve got to be locked & loaded for action.

4. You’ve got to be willing to go out of your local market. Beggars can’t be choosers. Keep in mind: It’s more relaxing to be riding on a open stretch of road with the radio playing than stand outside in a 1 or 2 hour line waiting your turn at a mass vaccination site.

Hint: With the Federally supplied Retail Pharmacy Program (CVS, Walgreen’s, Walmart, etc.) , you can even go across state lines. In a bind, check adjoining states’ store locations.

5. Be especially alert to new news. Again, the minutes immediately after a new channel opens up are especially important.

Ditto for the days & times that vaccination sites are being reloaded with additional doses of vaccine.

Hint: Keep your eye on Thursday mornings (early). Based on some reports that I’ve seen, that may be when replenishment orders are confirmed by the Feds and the States.

Good luck…

One Response to “VAX: I got mine … and it wasn’t easy!”

  1. ST Says:

    This is insanity – government agencies should be embarrassed to make people go through these hoops to protect their citizenry and the global community at large. I can’t imagine people who don’t possess your gumption and willpower will take the necessary time (or lose interest) to do what is necessary to get the vaccine. Shameful.

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