Editor’s note: The number of older adults who had Saturday appointments but were not vaccinated has been corrected. The Division of Public Health initially provided incorrect statistics.
At almost every turn in its early stages, Delaware’s vaccine plan has prompted confusion and frustration among the health care workers, first responders and older adults who officials say deserve protection from the novel coronavirus’s deadly effects first.
In the first month of the rollout, the state struggled to get the vaccine to primary care providers and other private offices without a hospital affiliation that are considered part of the state’s highest-priority phase 1A population.
They were often left to chase down doses through their own connections at the same time the state’s vaccine tracker showed roughly half of its doses were unused.
The state then established large drive-thru vaccination events focused on “sprinting” through the rest of phase 1A, but residents not a part of that group started receiving vaccinations at the events, leading to more consternation.
Delaware last week moved to phase 1B of its vaccine plan, making the pool of eligible recipients roughly three times larger by including some essential workers and all residents 65 and older. The plan is to vaccinate most older adults at large drive-thru events.
On the first official weekend for the drive-thru events, hundreds of older adults Saturday abandoned hourslong vaccination lines at DMV facilities in Delaware City and Georgetown. Those who arrived early or on time for their scheduled 30-minute windows waited several hours before being vaccinated.
According to the state’s vaccine tracker, about 70% of Delaware’s 96,325 doses have been administered. Several thousand doses administered this weekend haven’t been added, meaning Delaware’s rate of vaccines administered is likely higher and ranks among the leading states in the country.
But the recent push to vaccinate as many people as possible at large vaccination events has left in peril the second doses for those vaccinated in recent weeks with vaccine supply still limited across the country.
The Medical Society of Delaware said the Division of Public Health told its organization the state is unable to guarantee the availability of second doses and schedule specific sites for Delawareans to receive them.
According to an email obtained by Delaware Online/The News Journal, the Office of Emergency Medical Services, which helped orchestrate vaccine events for first responders, has paused all previously scheduled second vaccine dose dates until further notice.
Those who were vaccinated at the state’s DMV events this weekend received an email to schedule a second dose online that directed them to a page with no options for future vaccine events.
In an email to The News Journal, Division of Public Health spokeswoman Jennifer Brestel said, “Second doses are being provided as the supply of vaccine to Delaware from the government allows.”
Well before worrying about second doses, several older adults told The News Journal they have had difficulty navigating the online appointment system required to be vaccinated at the mass vaccination events.
More than 10 months after the pandemic hit the First State, Delaware’s vaccine plan currently hinges on older adults being able to navigate a series of emails to make an appointment and to produce a QR code to present to vaccine site volunteers to prove they’ve completed a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-mandated medical history form.
Dorothy Cutting, an 86-year-old who lives by herself in Wilmington, first had trouble completing the “Captcha” to prove she’s not a robot, and now is waiting for an email she said she hasn’t yet received to continue to the next step of the process.
She describes herself as “not that computer literate,” saying she mostly uses her computer for online jigsaw puzzles and email. Even if she did receive an appointment, a drive to the Delaware City DMV facility would be a nonstarter, she said.
For her safety and the safety of others, she doesn’t drive outside the city because of her slow reaction time.
“For me to go to Delaware City is like telling me to drive to Alaska,” she said.
“The logistics are frightening; they are so difficult,” she said. “If you can’t get a thousand people in there to get their shot, then don’t schedule a thousand people.”
What caused Saturday’s backups?
The Division of Public Health said the inability of many to complete the CDC form before their appointments contributed to Saturday’s delays. The agency also said the event was delayed by people who showed up without appointments, more people from phase 1A showing up than expected and equipment issues due to the cold.
The situation appeared to improve by Sunday afternoon when the Division of Public Health reported wait times of an hour in Delaware City and 15 to 20 minutes in Georgetown.
The agency sent messages to those who were registered for Sunday’s event asking them to fill out the CDC questionnaire ahead of time, a step that was not included in the state’s initial messaging when it announced the beginning of phase 1B last week.
To speed up Sunday’s event, the Division of Public Health added state troopers to both locations to help traffic flow and moved phase 1A health care workers at Delaware City to a separate pool.
Spokeswoman Andrea Wojcik said the Delaware City and Georgetown facilities did not have as much space as the Dover DMV facility, where the Division of Public Health tested its system for phase 1B last weekend. The agency was able to address some traffic issues overnight.
Because extreme cold forced the Georgetown event to switch to a paper system because computers wouldn’t work properly, some people who were vaccinated received an email saying their appointment was canceled. The Department of Health and Human Services said those emails should be disregarded.
Several people who were vaccinated at Saturday’s event said they were pleased with how the event was conducted despite the longer-than-expected wait times and had no difficulty navigating the online registration system to set up their first appointment.
“It was excellent,” said Rolando Toccafondi, a 77-year-old from Newark who was vaccinated with his wife after a six-hour wait Saturday. “We were shocked. Everyone was so nice. Very, very supportive.”
But, 334 Delawareans who had Saturday appointments could not withstand the wait and left the line before being vaccinated or didn’t show up at all.
“It was a nightmare,” said Bonnie Siley, an 80-year-old who left the line Saturday in Delaware City.
Tina Alinskas spent about three hours in line with her 89-year-old mother, Theresa Somkajlo, in Georgetown on Saturday morning. She said it wouldn’t have been possible for her mother to sign up on her own or drive through the vaccination lanes.
“There’s not a chance; there’s just too many steps,” Alinskas said. “The steps are confusing.”
What about second doses?
Alinskas receive a text Saturday night, saying she could go online to register her mother for a second dose, which according to the vaccination card they received should occur on Feb. 19 or later.
The only date that came up online was Feb. 20, and she could not select it.
“Maybe they just aren’t ready to start taking appointments yet, but I don’t know why then they would say to go to the site,” she said.
Others said they were told by volunteers at the DMV events that there’s no plan for second doses next month.
Recipients of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine should receive a second dose 21 days after the first, and recipients of the Moderna vaccine should receive a second dose 28 days after the first.
The CDC said this past week that second doses can be scheduled up to six weeks after the first if they can’t be given in the recommended time frame.
During a Tuesday evening virtual town hall, Gov. John Carney said the state needs to figure out how to make sure all of the second doses are available on time, both in terms of supply and actually administering them.
“We are, I think, holding a small amount of second doses as are maybe some of our providers, but there’s a greater priority in moving and getting more and more people with that first dose,” Carney said. “As we move on, that supply has to increase.”
In the final days of the Trump administration, outgoing Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar encouraged states to offer the vaccine to older adults and stop holding back second doses, saying the administration was going to release all of its reserve doses.
Officials later clarified that all of those reserve doses were already earmarked as booster shots for people who had gotten the vaccine, and their release would support people who needed their second dose, not new pools of people who were getting their first shot.
Azar said moving forward the federal government would include doses for new people as well as second doses in each weekly shipment. President Joe Biden echoed that policy in announcing his vaccine plan last week, according to the New York Times.
State officials said getting second doses to Delawareans hinges on how much vaccine the federal government allots the state, which they said under Trump was uneven week to week and often fell short of estimates. Last week, the state received 18,725 doses, according to its vaccine tracker.
Carney said on Tuesday that the state needed to speed up the process to demonstrate that it can vaccinate more people than what’s being delivered in order to get more doses.
“I didn’t want to risk losing any allocation in the future because we hadn’t been successful with our thru-put in the short term,” Carney said on Tuesday.
There are roughly 70,000 Delawareans who fall under phase 1A and more than 200,000 who fall under phase 1B.