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I was prepared for chaos Thursday as I headed to Downey for my coronavirus vaccine.
Maybe they’d run out of meds, or wouldn’t have a record of my appointment, or maybe I’d be in for a three-hour wait, like a colleague who got her vaccination at Dodger Stadium Wednesday afternoon.
As I and others have noted, it’s been a rocky rollout, with mixed signals from political leaders, frozen appointment websites and plenty of confusion, especially among those 65 and older who were given the vaccination green light by Gov. Gavin Newsom way before there was enough vaccine to go around.
On Tuesday, after my column about being able to easily make an appointment in Alaska, but not here, I got an email from a reader telling me he had just signed up for a vaccine on the county's VaccinateLACounty.com website. “Type fast,” he said. “Spaces are filling up fast!”
OK, I thought, here we go again.
I’d spent hours on the Kroger.com site trying unsuccessfully to get vaccinated at a Ralphs supermarket. Type in the location. Choose a store and check available vaccinations.
This store has the COVID shot but no appointments. That store has the shingles vaccine but not the stuff you need. And then you get stores where now you see it, now you don’t, as if they've run out of COVID vaccine in the 10 seconds since you last checked.
So you try again, and again. Burbank, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Pasadena, Woodland Hills. No luck. It’s like chasing a squirrel, and I think someone’s playing tricks on us seniors.
But things went differently for me on the county website Tuesday afternoon. I was already too late for quickly vanishing appointments at three locations. But readers had told me not to give up. Scramble, resubmit, keep hope alive. I tried my luck with the L.A. County Education Center location and presto!
I felt like I’d hit the lottery. See you Thursday, said my emailed confirmation, for a 12:15 Pfizer injection.
Quickly, I emailed some readers who'd written me about their frustration and told them to get on the site, ASAP. I retweeted the website and phone number, too. But before long I was hearing from readers who said they had tried, but were too late. New appointments keep opening up, though, so it's worth continuing to try.
Still, we must, very soon, advance to where getting this shot in the arm doesn’t require having a computer, having the time and ability to negotiate website obstacle courses, and then being able to sprint to the finish line. This is crazy.
Speaking of the finish line, I figured something had gone wrong Thursday when I approached the Downey vaccination site. Cones were set up entering the grounds, but there was no line of cars. At the entrance, a county employee asked to see my ID and appointment notification, and I was directed through the chutes.
Employees from county health, fire and emergency services were all about, along with traffic controllers my age and older who told me they were volunteers.
Someone checked my temperature. My ID was checked again. And then a young woman, a traveling RN from Miami, approached me with a digital tablet and asked my name. I worried when she seemed to be searching in vain, but she explained there were lots of Lopezes with appointments.
She soon found my name and waved me ahead. Then a traveling nurse from New Orleans came toward me. Like the first nurse, she was smiling and in good spirits. We exchanged pleasantries, then she reached in through the window and needled me the juice. I didn’t feel a thing.
I said thank you, they gave me a vaccination card with my name and inoculation information on it, and I was directed ahead to a 15-minute waiting area to make sure I didn’t have a bad reaction.
First one nurse and then another came by to check on me. Then I was approached by Dr. Julie Lam, an internist at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center, who told me she was volunteering on her day off.
“This is my community,” she said when I asked why. “This is the first positive sign of hope.”
Some healthcare workers were being vaccinated at the Downey site, but Lam said she had seen “a ton of seniors” coming through the line.
“It’s a lot of people driving their parents and grandparents here, including some fragile 80- and 90-year-olds,” Lam said.
They’re the lucky ones, I said, given how hard it is to get an appointment.
“I’m one of the people who’s up at night trying to make an appointment for my family,” Lam said.
I mentioned that I might be back in three weeks, the recommended Pfizer follow-up time, for my second dose. I was surprised to hear her say that vaccine might or might not be available, and if it’s not, someone’s going to have to make some tough priority decisions. Should people be able to get a second dose before others can get their first?
L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger was surprised to hear that tidbit from me. She said she was under the impression that optimal effectiveness was based on getting the second dose at the prescribed time, and she thought patients were being slotted to return to the same place, same time, on the designated follow-up day.
“I’m going to follow up on that,” Barger said.
As for the glitches on the county website, Barger said she has heard firsthand about the struggles many seniors have experienced, and the county can and must do a better job of simplifying the process. But she added that the state has controlled that scheduling site and the state also controls the distribution of the vaccine.
In short, without more vaccine, it doesn’t matter how effective the websites are. Limited vaccine means limited appointments, and more mad scrambling.
One reader told me he sat in line at Dodger Stadium for five hours Wednesday before getting his shot. Veronica Jimenez of San Pedro told me it took her 10 hours to line up appointments for her elderly parents and aunt, but when they showed up for their scheduled vaccinations Friday at the Crenshaw Christian Center, the operation was closed. On Saturday morning, Jimenez got a text with a new appointment time but no explanation for what went wrong Friday.
I’ve also fielded complaints from exasperated residents of Orange and San Bernardino counties, and from Kaiser patients, too, all of them wondering why seniors can’t get vaccination appointments more than a week after Newsom told them to roll up their sleeves.
The answer, Barger said, is that there simply hasn’t been enough vaccine available to meet demand. True, and until we get enough people vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, we still need to social distance and wear masks — even after getting the shot, since the vaccine isn't 100% effective.
“I truly believe in my heart,” Barger said, that President Biden’s call for 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days of office is not an empty promise.
I hope she’s right. But if so, then we have to hope Newsom and the state do one heck of a lot better job managing the pandemic and distributing vaccine than they have to date, with reports that some of the coveted supply has sat on shelves and even expired.
My experience Thursday proves that we can administer vaccinations efficiently. But with more hospitalizations and deaths daily, we need to pick up the pace in a big way.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.