What a mess! No, not across the river, but right here in Fairfax County. The coronavirus vaccination registration roll-out for Phase 1b was bound to have a few problems, but overwhelming telephone and on-line response, technical difficulties, unrealistic expectations, and lack of vaccine doses combined to create frustration and anger for many residents during the past couple of weeks. While the technical glitches may have been resolved, uncertainty in the registration process continues to vex the many older residents who qualify in Phase 1b.
Fairfax County has 1.2 million residents; when Governor Northam announced that residents aged 75 and above could register for vaccination appointments, and the Fairfax County Health Department opened the site on Jan. 11, thousands of people began calling and logging on at midnight. Some say they called up to 400 times in a row (re-dial appears to be a favored mechanism), without success.
The system was overwhelmed, requiring fixes by vendors, and lots of patience was needed, but finally, reports were that callers actually were able to access and submit the registration form. As explained, but perhaps not understood, the completed registration form did not automatically generate an actual appointment to get a shot; applicants would have to wait for a call back or text about scheduling.
That was confusing, especially for seniors without access to a cell phone. Bottom line: you do not need a cell phone; a landline number will suffice. So many people registered (the system recorded 268,000 voice mails the first day) that call backs probably will take several weeks.
Added to the complications was the Governor’s surprise announcement on Thursday that Phase 1b would open to those aged 65 to 75 on Jan. 18. The already-overburdened registration system now would be open to thousands more applicants, with little time for the system to pivot to take additional registrations on a new form. You guessed it: the system crashed again on Monday, this time it was a cloud-based problem with the county’s vendor for the sign-up form. That problem affected many local jurisdictions, not just Fairfax County, and appears to have been rectified.
The “elephant in the room,” of course, is the availability of vaccines.
States and localities are dependent, totally, on the federal government’s “Warp Speed” vaccine distribution system.
On Christmas Eve, the Fairfax County Health Department received 12,000 doses, and another 12,000 followed shortly after, for administration to first responders and health care workers. A limited number of doses was not a surprise, because Warp Speed leaders had assured the nation that enough vaccines were reserved for more rollouts and the all-important second shots that are part of the regimen. So the news this weekend that there are no doses reserved, and the huge numbers of promised vaccines simply do not exist, was devastating. What promised to be a rather lengthy rollout now has no timeline at all. The Biden administration must move quickly to restore trust and make more doses available.
As of Tuesday, Fairfax County had more than 100,000 residents registered for vaccines. When the needed doses are available, appointments will be scheduled, but patience is required. It will be several weeks, perhaps months, for Health Department staff to work through the list when vaccine doses become available. To paraphrase an old movie line, this mess will do until the real one comes along. One hopes that order will return soon, via the Biden administration and our own local resources.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.