syringe and vial

As the vaccine is distributed in the U.S., many people have reported experiencing alarming difficulties in their attempts to get the shot, and changing rules. Appointments made are revoked, and phone numbers that were working suddenly stop working within minutes. Even those currently eligible to be vaccinated have encountered roadblocks in what could be a simple process.

Residents of Long Island are upset that they are hearing that the Covid vaccine is available only by word of mouth for some lucky people who got the secret phone call. One New York woman told us she scheduled an appointment in nearby Connecticut, and then had that appointment canceled after The New York Times published a story about people going across state lines to get vaccines. The largely rural Delaware County area in the Catskills region of New York has had no vaccines, according to a local report. And people in the New York City area are seeing that there are vaccines available for New York City residents, but not for suburbanites.

In some places, vaccines are simply not available, forcing eligible patients to drive hundreds of miles to get a shot — or to simply wait in anger and frustration. This is further complicated by the fact that the vaccine is administered in two doses — either 21 or 28 days apart, depending on the manufacturer. — so those seeking vaccination must make the journey twice.

Many of those now eligible for the vaccine are health-compromised in some way, either because they are senior citizens or because of health conditions.

‘Shouldn’t come down to luck’

“Receiving the coveted COVID-19 vaccine shouldn’t come down to luck,” was the headline of a guest opinion written by Carol Beaugard in The Suffolk Times on Long Island, N.Y.

She wrote of frustration in using the official channels to get a vaccine, and then finding a word-of-mouth solution.

“On the morning of Jan. 20, a friend called and said ‘I just got an appointment for me and my husband to get the vaccine! Go to the Riverhead Health Center right now,’” she wrote. “After I figured out where Sun River Health was, I called two friends and we went there immediately. Not only did I get appointments for us for the following week, but I was able to make appointments for three friends. When I returned home I called everyone I could think of in my community that would know my name and answer my phone call and told them where to go to get an appointment. They in turn called other neighbors. About 40 or so people from my community got there that day and got appointments.”

Later, she wrote, several appointments were canceled, for lack of vaccine, while some were honored. “My concerns are the following: Why was this only word of mouth? We were vaccinated purely by luck! Is there a plan to reschedule those canceled appointments? How will they be rescheduled? Where are vaccines being given on the North Fork? I know of people who were given vaccine at the Peconic Bay Medical Center Satellite on Second Street in Riverhead. Who knew they were a site? Appointments were made for Southampton Hospital. Was this information ever published anywhere? Shortages of vaccine are understandable, but the lack of communication for a community of many vulnerable constituents is appalling!”

The local Facebook group “Let’s Talk Village of Greenport” filled up with anguished and angry responses from residents to a “secret” vaccine site — especially given the fact that local seniors were making appointments at faraway New York State sites in places like Plattsburgh, up near the Canadian border, a five-hour drive away.

‘I actually cried’

One local woman wrote: “I could have ‘registered’ today in Plattsburgh on the Canadian border 420 miles away but that is not possible for us. So what do you do? I actually cried today when I heard about the secret ‘word of mouth’ vaccinations at Peconic Landing. We deserve a level playing field; this debacle is not it.“

Scott Russell, the town supervisor for Greenport, wrote on Facebook: “This is a good example of my frustration. Vaccines are distributed to regional health companies, like Northwell. It is a regional medical Network that has not just hospitals but urgent care centers etc. When they’re expecting vaccines, they work with the health commissioner to determine where they will be distributed then notify the local offices such as Sun Urgent Care. They do not give the public any notice until right before they offer them. CVS was told before the governor announced publicly that they would be getting vaccines. The CVS corporate office told pharmacies that were selected that they should get ready because they were going to be delivered. They were specifically told that the information be kept confidential. Some of the locations were told two days later that they were not, in fact, getting them. When they do get them, they will be directed to send out a notice right before they schedule them. The local stores will find out at the last minute then be instructed to wait until the last minute to get the word out.”

He also wrote: “This has been an ongoing battle with the Suffolk County Health Commissioner, New York State and the Suffolk County Supervisors who are all outraged by this. There is a complete lack of communication and we find out about these pop-ups the same as everyone- word of mouth. This one was organized by Stony Brook and [Eastern Long Island Hospital – Stony Brook Medicine] and I found out last night only because Peconic Landing asked us to be on hand in case they needed crowd management. People should understand that there are 2 tiers of vaccination centers; ‘pods’ that are organized and managed by NYS such as at Stony Brook and Jones Beach. The other vaccines are distributed directly to healthcare agencies. The agencies, including hospitals, urgent care, pharmacies, etc may find out that they are getting vaccines on a specified date. However, they deliberately stay tight-lipped because first, the vaccines may not come through when expected and they don’t want to have people make appointments they have to then cancel (which has happened many times). Second, they don’t know how many they are getting and don’t know how many they can vaccinate. Once they actually get vaccines, they put the word out just shortly before they plan on offering them to ensure they don’t get overloaded with demand. Word-of-mouth is a deliberate strategy and an inexcusable one. I am contacting [Eastern Long Island Hospital – Stony Brook Medicine] tomorrow will demand to know why this was not advertised to the general public.”

A list promoted by word of mouth

In Delaware County, N.Y., throughout January, although those aged 65 and up were eligible for the vaccine for over a month, no vaccines were available for seniors anywhere in the county, The River Newsroom reported. The Margaretville Hospital, one of three small hospitals in the county, is reportedly keeping a list of seniors who wish to be vaccinated, but this list is being promoted only by word-of mouth.

The nearest state vaccination site is in Albany, over an hour away, and “appointments that open up there are typically snapped up within minutes,” The River Newsroom reported.

In January, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that vaccination of elderly people would be done by pharmacies, while county health officials focused on essential workers, and hospitals focused on healthcare workers.

For weeks, pharmacies in Delaware County awaited vaccines, but none came. Nearby counties with larger health departments and greater resources were able to get permission from the state to start vaccinating the elderly, but it took until early February for just two Walgreens pharmacies in Delaware County to receive doses from the state.

Even after appointments opened up at these pharmacies, senior residents still face barriers to entry. Those seeking to make appointments must first make an account on and complete an identity verification quiz. A number of elderly people ended up being locked out of the scheduling tool, The River Newsroom reported. Those who were able to access the tool took all available appointments within minutes.

Retirement community mass vaccination

In Long Island, Peconic Landing Retirement Community reportedly advocated for the creation of a “mass vaccination ‘pod,’” because so many residents in the area were 65 and over, according to the The Suffolk Times.

“When [the state] was putting pod sites together, they didn’t take into consideration the demographics out here and also didn’t take into consideration how hard it is for an 80-year-old to get in a car and go an hour and 20 minutes,” Peconic Landing, president and CEO Robert Syron told The Suffolk Times.

Newsday recently reported that Long Islanders, frustrated with their inability to get vaccinated in lower New York, have been forced to consider making long journeys to other parts of the state.

Dozens of Long Islanders, primarily senior citizens, have reportedly made the 700-mile round-trip journey from Long Island to Plattsburgh — one they must complete twice in order to receive both doses of the vaccine.

“[This] is an indicator of how problematic the state’s vaccine allocation program has become” Newsday wrote, “and the lengths to which some will go to get their shot.”

Connecticut schools tussle

Confusion has also broken out over just who is eligible for vaccination, and who has precedence over whom.

In Connecticut, controversy arose when the Region 14 Schools superintendent, Joe Olzacki, and the district’s Covid-19 coordinator, Mark Hartunian, were accused of playing a role in “allowing administrators, central office employees, board of education members and their spouses to jump the line and receive a limited number of vaccinations ahead of teachers,” the Hartford Courant reported.

Currently, only adults 75 years of age and older are able to make vaccine appointments in Connecticut. “Confusion between the state and local districts led to hundreds of teachers being registered for vaccines out of turn,” the Hartford Courant wrote. District teachers overwhelmingly voted for Olzacki and Hartunian’s resignation in the wake of this incident.

No appointments across state lines?

The situation is further confused by reports on Facebook and elsewhere that New Yorkers who had made appointments in Connecticut were learning that the people administering vaccines in Connecticut were checking drivers licenses and turning away people who don’t live in Connecticut.

Lorraine Dusky, 84, of Sag Harbor, Long Island, New York, said she had been seeking an appointment for a vaccine for weeks. Because of her contacts in her community, she learned that she could not get a quick vaccine appointment in her neighborhood — but she could make an appointment for herself and for her husband in neighboring Connecticut, a quick ferry ride from her home, as others had done.

“A friend of mine was one of the people who went to Connecticut…they took the Long Island, ferry, you know, across the sound and got their shots on Wednesday. We had made a reservation as soon as I heard from them that they got reservations, but we couldn’t get them until Saturday.”

But she learned the day before her appointment — scheduled for February 6 — that the provider, a CVS pharmacy in Waterford, Conn., had canceled a friend’s appointment, because she, like Dusky and her husband, were New Yorkers seeking vaccine appointments in Connecticut. Her friend’s appointment was canceled, so Dusky herself changed her plans, without hearing from the provider. They both were convinced that Connecticut closed its borders to vaccine-seekers from New York because of a New York Times article about people crossing the border to get a vaccine.

Then the following morning, when Dusky would have been in transit, the provider called to cancel, apologetically.

“Someone in Connecticut probably complained [about people crossing the border]. We found out that the police were stopping people and they were checking IDs and that it would be pointless for us to go. And in fact, this morning, I got a phone call from CVS in Connecticut apologizing and saying, ‘We’re really sorry, but you know, since you don’t live in Connecticut, we won’t be able to give you this shot.’”

She said many of her close friends have gotten vaccinated because they have two addresses — one on Long Island, and one in the city. If she doesn’t get vaccinated, she said, she thinks she and her husband will be cut off from their friends: “I feel like pretty soon…people are going to like, ‘No, we don’t want to see you. Because you don’t have any of your vaccination yet. You’re still deadly.’”

What you can do

We have learned that plugging into social media is an option for many. We’re not endorsing any of these strategies or pages, but rather reporting on what we are seeing others do.

Here’s a New Jersey Twitter feed. Here’s a New Jersey-focused Facebook group.

Here’s a New York-focused Facebook group.

Here’s a compendium of links for “vaccine finders,” who say they’re not really helping people jump the line, but rather helping people make sure that no vaccines are wasted at the end of a day, if patients don’t show up and vaccines will need to be trashed. It looks to us as if there are all sorts of “how to find vaccine” tips that do include jumping the line, with inside information, going beyond the waste phenomenon that is the reason cited for these groups. This is the New York “vaccine finders” Facebook page.

Here’s a New York volunteer effort, NycVaccinelist, that shows available appointments using a combination of automated checks and manual checks by volunteers. Refresh often.

Neighborhood Facebook and Twitter groups have replaced the force of government knowledge for many. It’s awkward that people believe Facebook more than local government, but there you have it.

A signup for leftover vaccines has sprung up. Called HiDrB, it has an all-star cast of founders and advisors. We’re not sure how well it works.

We are hearing a lot about the new Twitter feed Turbovax, which seems promising, though we don’t know anyone who’s gotten a vaccine from them — so maybe it’s a matter of timing.

Rite-Aid, Walgreen’s and CVS drugstore chains are vaccinating people in some locations. There are online signup forms, where you must certify eligibility and then select a location. For Walgreen’s, you have to make an account. There are frustratingly few appointments, though it seems from online tips that appointments may open up at unexpected times. Some have said they found luck overnight — one said right after midnight.

Jeanne Pinder

Jeanne Pinder  is the founder and CEO of ClearHealthCosts. She worked at The New York Times for almost 25 years as a reporter, editor and human resources executive, then volunteered for a buyout and founded...

Phoebe Pinder

Phoebe Pinder is a videographer and content creator at Per Scholas, a tech education nonprofit dedicated to advancing economic equity...