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Glitches, website errors add to frustrations of scarce COVID-19 vaccine supply

It can feel nearly impossible to schedule a COVID-19 vaccine.

Thousands of people are vying for the same limited appointments, as demand far outpaces vaccine supply.

Scheduling an appointment — typically online — often requires being tech-savvy or having a younger relative, friend or supporter to help.

Complicating matters, people are experiencing glitches online that prevent them from even being able to make an appointment at all.

On Tuesday, several area residents said they had successfully secured an appointment on Walgreens' website Monday evening only to be notified that it was a mistake and there were no appointments available.

In a prepared statement, a Walgreens representative said "some customers in Ohio were mistakenly informed it would not be possible to fulfill their appointment."

"We are currently in the process of reaching back out to these individuals to confirm their vaccination appointment," the statement read. "We are very committed to honoring vaccination appointments that have been scheduled in our system, and are actively working to ensure eligible individuals are able to schedule their vaccinations."

On Monday, CVS, which is offering COVID shots in other areas (not in Summit County at this time), also ran into a glitch with its website. It was temporarily not allowing people ages 65 and older, the newest eligible age group this week, to get into the system for an appointment. Walgreens also did not have the correct eligible age for a short time Monday morning.

Phil and Debra Canuto were scheduled to get their first vaccine doses Tuesday afternoon. But after a roller coaster experience, Phil Canuto had his doubts even 30 minutes before the appointment.

“I won't believe it until the vaccine is actually in my arm,” he said.

Debra Canuto, 65, first became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine Monday. Phil Canuto, 69, who had a kidney transplant, became eligible earlier but didn’t have any luck securing a dose.

After searching for appointments online Monday, Debra Canuto was able to get two reservations for Tuesday through Walgreens. But Tuesday morning, the Akron couple got a call saying those times were available by mistake.

Doses of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines rest on a table at an Akron Children's Hospital vaccination clinic for Tallmadge City Schools staff in the gym at Tallmadge High School on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal]

The appointments were canceled, so they tried to schedule appointments with Summit County Public Health. They, like many others, were greeted by error messages, frozen screens and slow load times.

When Debra Canuto finally clicked the button for her appointment, it was gone.

“It said, ‘Sorry there’s an error, try again,’” Debra Canuto said.

Summit County Public Health said its appointment and call center lines temporarily went down shortly after noon Tuesday but were back up by about 12:30 p.m.

It wasn’t until 1 p.m. Tuesday that Walgreens called, letting the Canutos know they could get shots after all.

The Canutos, who live in Akron's Highland Square, received their vaccines Tuesday afternoon at an area Walgreens store.

COVID-19 vaccines in Summit County:People 65 and older eligible; appointments still hard to get

Statewide:Ohio reports 3,207 new COVID-19 cases, 98 deaths

The Canutos said they were thankful Walgreens came through for them but upset with the process. The tech-savvy couple used multiple devices when trying to book appointments — which is not possible for everyone in their age group.

Phil Canuto added that some people he knows have impaired eyesight and lack of transportation on top of an already difficult process for scheduling appointments.

He said he’ll be grateful after getting the vaccine, but he'll also feel a little guilty.

“There’s a discomfort with all of this too,” he said. “You know it's not equitable. You know some of the people who need it the most may not have the chance.”

He said he understands the vaccines are in short supply but said the process to get them to people should have been worked out on a federal level before they were ready.

Each week, the eligibility for who can get a vaccine in Ohio has expanded, from 80 to 75 to 70 to 65. Now, anyone 65 and older is eligible to get the vaccine, along with people with developmental or intellectual disabilities coupled with severe congenital, developmental or early-onset medical disorders.

Employees of K-12 schools who want to remain or return to in-person or hybrid learning also are getting vaccinated, and several school districts are working on getting their employees vaccinated in the coming weeks.

Last week, Gov. Mike DeWine said the state will be "holding" that age group for several weeks to work through the millions of people eligible in that phase.

But that still means a massive pool of people is competing for a tiny number of vaccines.

Statewide, there are about 2.2 million people in Phase 1B, including about 334,000 K-12 teachers and staff.

Although there are close to four dozen locations in Summit County to get a vaccine, and nearly 900 total locations across Ohio, each location only receives a small quantity of vaccines each week.

Summit County Public Health — which is only one provider in the county — said that for this week’s 1B age groups, it was given 500 doses.

The health department said it sent out more than 40,000 notifications letting people know when its appointment line and web link went live.

Once the department's website came back up Tuesday afternoon, web appointments were gone within two minutes and appointments saved for the phone lines were gone probably within an hour, spokeswoman Marlene Martin said.

Rohit Rao,  36, started trying at noon to get an appointment for his 69-year-old father. After encountering issues with the county health department's website, he tried with no success to call the phone lines.

After multiple tries, he finally got to a screen to pick a date and time for an appointment. But then the screen said "saving" and never gave him the confirmation page that his dad's appointment was secure. 

Martin said the spinning or loading page meant the appointment had been taken by someone else.

"We've communicated if you get a spinning circle, get out and try to get another appointment time," said Martin.

Rao is frustrated that he wasted four hours in the middle of a workday in the hope he had gotten an appointment. He has been trying without success at other pharmacy websites for an appointment.

"I'm an engineer by trade so I'm quite savvy. I know these things [websites] are pretty easy to build. It's not like rocket science," he said,. "I also get it that they have everyone coming together to try to get this."

The health department recognized the frustrating process on social media.

"Until the supply of vaccine increases, any one person may not be able to secure an appointment for a dose," its Facebook post reads. "It is completely unlike any other medical situation where you can secure an appointment, even if it’s months away. Also, you are literally amongst THOUSANDS of people vying for the very limited supply we have...We want to be able to vaccinate everyone who wants to be vaccinated. Our continuing hope is that supply begins to increase in the reasonably near future so we have more to provide to our community members."

Martin said the county’s vaccine information registry has topped 100,000 people, showing the demand.

She said they’ve used that information to create a backup list of people who live near the health department. If an extra vaccine needs to be put in an arm, they can go to that list.

Only two vaccines the health department has received haven’t been used. Martin said there was a malfunction with the syringes that made those two doses unusable.

Because of its waste list, she said the health department has been able to get extra doses to people in priority groups.

Contact Beacon Journal reporters Sean McDonnell, Emily Mills and Betty Lin-Fisher at smcdonnell@thebeaconjournal.com, emills@thebeaconjournal.com and blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com.