Wednesday’s news that people 65 and older could now get the coronavirus vaccine began kindling a bit of hope for millions of older Californians and their family members.
But on Thursday, they were greeted not with needles or appointments, but with busy phone lines, overwhelmed websites and physicians who said they had little idea when they’d be able to give their senior patients vaccinations. Information seemed more scarce than the vaccine itself.
Kaiser Permanente patients reported receiving a message that they would have to wait as long as four hours to speak to anyone who could schedule an appointment.
They had better luck than Sutter Health patients, who said they found the phone lines were down, along with the health care provider’s website.
And Stanford Health Care patients said their website and mobile phone apps were operating, but offered scant information about vaccination availability for seniors.
Frustration was growing Thursday amid a sputtering vaccine rollout in the Bay Area and across California.
“There is no information available or anybody who can tell us about it,” said Vijay Khasat, an 80-year-old insulin-dependent diabetic from Hayward, in an email. “We contacted our health care providers who also gave us the silent treatment.”
Carolee Ziegenhagen, 74, of Alameda, said her sister in Florida got her first shot last week and is due with the second scheduled for Feb. 3. Meanwhile, she can’t get an answer from her doctors, medical group, insurers or pharmacy.
“I would love to know when I can sign up for mine,” she said.
In Richmond, Mayor Tom Butt said he has been unable to get any information from his provider, Kaiser, about when he can sign up for a vaccine.
Butt, who is 76, said he signed up on the Contra Costa County website Wednesday morning.
“I’m a little baffled I’m not hearing anything from Kaiser,” he said. “I went to their website and I’m not finding anything there.”
Late Thursday afternoon, Kaiser Permanente Northern California announced it would contact all members 65 and over to discuss the availability of vaccines but warned that the supply was limited.
A Sutter Health spokeswoman acknowledged Thursday night that phone lines were overwhelmed and the website problems are being investigated, though both are working. Patients who qualify for vaccines should now be able to schedule them.
“At this time, Sutter is prioritizing the state’s most vulnerable populations including those who are 75-plus years of age and our community health care workers,” spokeswoman Angeline Sheets said. Sutter’s phone appointment line will be staffed over the three-day weekend and scheduling would soon be available through its online portal.
We are committed to vaccinating our members as soon as possible, given available supply. Due to high demand, we are experiencing high call volumes and longer wait times. We appreciate your patience as we work hard to meet this demand. https://t.co/QjsqxfTBxN
— KPNorthernCal (@kpnorcal) January 14, 2021
At UCSF, spokeswoman Elizabeth Fernandez said the health system has sent out messages to its members about the status of vaccines, including the “limited and sporadic” supply. “We have almost finished vaccinating our health care workers,” she said. On Friday, she said, “we are starting with our primary care patients aged 75 and over, and hope to move to patients age 65 to 74 soon.”
San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney said the city is erring by relying on health care providers — hospitals and doctors — to provide the inoculations. Instead, to ensure that vaccines get into arms faster, he said the city’s health department should launch mass immunization sites at places like stadiums, arenas, parking lots and parks, as other cities have done.
“The current situation is just outrageous,” he said. “We’ve known about this for months, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear plan for widespread distribution by public health.”
A representative from San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management said the health department is vaccinating patients over 65 in the city’s health network in two clinics. “As more vaccine comes available, this will be scaled to other clinics,” the representative said, adding that the city is “working with private health care providers” to find additional facilities and accelerate vaccination.
Adding to the frustration for older Bay Area residents is the knowledge that friends in other counties and states are getting vaccinations while they wait on hold or continue refreshing their web browsers.
While people older than 75 can get vaccinations in Fresno County, Haney said, “my parents, who are 92 and 93” and live in San Francisco, can’t even get any information.”
Some of the lucky few who are able to get answers aren’t very happy with them.
Allen Podell, an 83-year-old engineer, lives in Palo Alto, 2 miles from Stanford Hospital. But when he started digging deep to find out where he might be able to get a vaccination, Stanford Health recommended Pinole, Danville and south San Jose — all long drives he’s not willing to make.
“So I’m just nailed,” he said. “Nobody else will take me, so I have to wait for Stanford, but they’ve fumbled the ball again. I’m 83, nearly 84, so I’ve learned to be patient. But it’s really a matter of life or death for us. I can picture these guys sitting around fiddling.”
“We’re held accountable to our local county for our vaccine supply and who we vaccinate. We were instructed yesterday that we may begin vaccinating patients who are 75 years and older. We’ve been actively preparing for the opportunity to vaccinate our patients,” Dr. Niraj Sehgal, Chief Medical Officer for Stanford Health Care said in a statement.
Merle Kahree, 71, a retired television news writer, lives in San Francisco, where her doctor told her he wouldn’t be getting vaccine to give to patients until June.
“And that’s just the first dose,” she said.
Kahree said she knew that distribution of the vaccine would be slow but figured there would at least be some general information so people would know what to expect.
“I just want guidance,” she said. “How long do I have to isolate at home? But I know I’m lucky. I’m healthy — I think — and I have a roof over my head.”