By Marlene Cimons,
The past few weeks of trying to get a coronavirus vaccination appointment have taken a heavy toll on my psyche, far worse than anything else I’ve faced during this long, dark year.
The approval of vaccines in December gave me hope after months of anxiety and uncertainty, and I began searching for an appointment as soon as I became eligible — with no luck.
My despair has been soul-crushing. I’m always on the brink of tears. I have trouble sleeping, and can’t seem to concentrate on anything but trying to find a slot. Hope seems more elusive than ever.
I have paid scrupulous attention to all of the public health recommendations, and have done as asked.
I have been isolating since March. I haven’t seen my two adult children in person since fall 2019. I have groceries delivered. I haven’t stepped inside a store for nearly a year, and I have postponed countless medical appointments. When I do leave the house, I always mask up. I’ve done all of this believing that vaccines would be coming, allowing me to resume at least some parts of my life, and to stop fearing serious illness, hospitalization and death.
But now that they are here, I haven’t been able to get one.
I live in Montgomery County, Md., where at 75 my age makes me eligible to get the vaccine immediately. I have preregistered with the county, whose stance remains “don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
Waiting for the county email that invites me to make an appointment is like waiting for Godot. I also trawl the websites of private hospitals and pharmacies that offer the vaccine, wasting endless hours as they crash from the load of thousands of other vaccine seekers. Or I doggedly click through form after form only to learn all appointments are filled. I signed up with hospitals to receive vaccine clinic alerts, but they always seem to come overnight. By morning, they are filled.
And yet, every day I start over again.
I asked Jeni Stolow, a social behavioral scientist and assistant professor in the Temple University College of Public Health, why things feel worse to me now than earlier in the pandemic.
“You’ve put so much emotional investment into this moment,” she says. “People have been waiting for the vaccine and now that it’s here, they simply weren’t emotionally prepared for more waiting — and they are past their threshold.”
We were sent on this search without well-defined rules or guidance, and it has become an exercise in frustration.
“You are certainly not alone,” says Cynthia Post, a friend who is a Silver Spring, Md., psychologist and who recently lost her father, Jerrold Post, a groundbreaking CIA psychological profiler, to covid-19. “I’ve gotten a lot of phone calls from people who are eligible, and are going through an obstacle course trying to get the vaccine. It’s not clear what the route is. They are anxious. Disgruntled. Confused. Worried. And they don’t know what to do.”
I feel like the failure is mine.
Lynn Bufka, senior director of practice transformation and quality for the American Psychological Association, says we shouldn’t blame ourselves.
“This is not a problem about you or directed at you but a systemic problem,” she says. “While that likely doesn’t lower frustration, it may make it feel less personal and easier to handle emotionally.”
It helps to take a step back, Post says. “Understanding your stress — the things you have control over and the things you don’t have control over — is not a bad place to start,” she says.
Logistical nightmares have been reported across the country. Here in Maryland, the state expanded eligibility and added vaccination sites without having enough vaccine to cover them, and state officials have offered conflicting and confusing advice about who can get it, and how. When asked recently whether people should join multiple vaccine waiting lists, for example, the state’s acting health secretary replied: “I’d have to think about that question.”
Wait lists? I wasn’t even aware that there were actual wait lists. If I had, I’d be on every one. Maybe he’s referring to the “interest” forms and alerts available from hospitals — I’ve signed up for those.
Further exacerbating the situation, the county sent residents a recent email declaring that just because the state allows people in lower tiers to get vaccinated, “that doesn’t mean that every county is able to do that.” And no one really knows whether it’s okay to cross county lines to get vaccinated. One county might encourage its residents to go elsewhere, while the counties they go to are cracking down on the practice and sending them home.
In short, it has been a challenge trying to figure out the system, including how policies compare between state and county, and especially how Montgomery decides who gets a coveted email invitation to make an appointment. I know health officials are targeting harder hit communities first, and they should. It’s important to reach them, and they deserve priority, no question.
But it galls me to hear that a local group of youthful-looking massage therapists sent clients a cheery “Celebrate with us” email about getting their vaccinations as health-care providers, hardly the same as doctors and nurses who care for covid-19 patients, or, for that matter, first responders, teachers, grocery workers and meatpackers. Respiratory therapists, yes. Massage therapists, no.
And there’s Facebook envy, when friends brag about their effortless vaccination experiences. I am happy for them. At the same time, I want to (figuratively) punch them in the face. And, of course, I feel guilty about that.
“This is completely understandable jealousy,” Stolow says. “We’ve all put so much pressure on the meaning of this vaccine. For many, it symbolizes safety, freedom, a return to normalcy, seeing friends, visiting, family and travel. And it’s understandable to want all of that. That’s what we all want.”
On top of all this, there are always those who try to circumvent the system — wealthy Whites who show up in minority neighborhood clinics, for example — or the eligible Bethesda couple who had the wherewithal to drive to another state to get vaccinated. Even people in lower tiers are grabbing appointments, only to be turned away, which is the right thing to do. Nevertheless, they have taken a space away from people like me.
There is no central registry in Maryland, just a hodgepodge of sites that are difficult to navigate, even for those who are computer savvy and nimble. Moreover, it doesn’t help to hear the governor and federal public health officials implore people to get vaccinated as quickly as possible. I know there are resistant populations who need convincing. But the rest of us are trying. And we are hurting.
Yes, I’ve heard the advice to take a break from social media and set aside only one part of the day to wrestle with the websites. I’m trying to focus on the future, and the prospect of a summer reunion in the country with my kids, provided all of us have been vaccinated. But it seems so far away.
“Take a deep breath and acknowledge that it’s going to take some time,” Stolow says. “This is the first vaccine rollout of its kind. We’re building the plane as we’re flying it.”
Maybe. But right now all I want to know is when my turn will come. I don’t want to jump the line. I just want to be on it.
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