The Needle Tears a Hole

I don’t remember when I started really seriously worrying about the vaccine. It wasn’t right away. I don’t mean to say that I didn’t want the vaccine. I just thought that I would get it in good time.

I am a fairly normal and average person, but I am maybe a little more vulnerable than a lot of people to COVID-19, for two reasons. First, I am overweight and have Type II diabetes, and yeah, there are a lot of people like that. Second, I am working outside the home; I do human resources at a small social services agency in Philadelphia. In this role, I have been exposed to COVID-19–haven’t contracted it yet, or I might not be sitting here typing about it.

I was under the impression, early on, that I would get the vaccine through my employer. I wasn’t particularly stressed about this; I assumed that the state agency that funds the program where I work would make the vaccine available in short order for our staff.

I didn’t start to get worried until the stories started coming out about the 21-year-old Drexel student who was, stupidly, put in charge of the Philadelphia vaccine program. That was the first inkling I had that anything was wrong. I decided to hedge my bets and sign up for the New Jersey registration system. That was easy, but then there was nothing from that system except radio silence.

Not long after that, New Jersey posted a long list of places where you could sign up for vaccinations. Some of them (like the designated site in my county) were tied to the state system. Others… weren’t. I signed up through the Camden County site. I got an appointment–for early August. Not ideal.

Not too long after that, vaccines started to be available through the large pharmacy chains, and I started checking them on a regular basis. When I didn’t have anything better to do, I would click through. Shop-Rite–nothing. CVS had intermittent stretches where it looked like you could make an appointment, if you held your mouth right. Walgreens would let you enter in ZIP codes all day long but never give you any availability. And Rite-Aid… oh, good Lord, the Rite-Aid site. You have to click on every store and see if appointments are available. One time out of, say, fifty, you can click through–but you can’t ever make an appointment.

And I began to hear from other people–won’t say who–who were getting vaccines, and who had way less entitlement to the vaccines than I did.

I have spent a lot of time working in social services, and one of the most corrosive things in social services agencies is I’m not getting what I want but someone else is, which is just a variation on that’s not fair. You hear this all the time. “I just fell through the cracks.” “I’m not getting this because of my race,” whatever that race might be. “The illegals get taken care of and we don’t.” Whatever your particular flavor of grievance is, there’s enough unfairness in social services delivery systems to justify it.

So this was familiar territory for me, dealing with service delivery in a fundamentally broken system. What you learn in dealing with these systems is that you need to figure out what the unwritten rules are and then use them to your advantage–that, and you have to advocate for yourself, because nobody else is going to be as effective.

The first step in the process is self-education, and it turns out the best way to educate yourself rapidly is through Facebook, which hosts several New Jersey groups for vaccine advice. It didn’t take me long to get helpful tips. Follow the vaccine bots on Twitter. Walmart only does appointments for seniors, so don’t bother. Rite-Aid releases appointments at 11:45 at night, and check for what sites are available. CVS updates at 5 am. (Being an insomniac is a great way to get a vaccine.)

So far, it’s worked, despite frustration after frustration. We were able to get an appointment for my wife at the Atlantic County mega-site; they operate their program by, literally, the luck of the draw. I got an appointment at the mega-site in the Meadowlands because I was on a certain website at midnight, holding my mouth right, and just kept clicking until an appointment came up.

The Facebook group that’s the largest does have incredibly useful information, but it’s also a litany of misery. People are trying as hard as they can and not getting anywhere. People are trying to get appointments for elderly parents who won’t travel. There’s a lot of anxiety, and a lot of heartbreak. And it doesn’t have to be this way. There is plenty of opportunity for the state to step in and tell their partners to develop a more systematic, orderly way for giving out the vaccines instead of relying on people to navigate a bewildering and tech-heavy system. I can’t imagine why it’s not being done, other than it’s easier to do it this way. (Just as it was easier to hand thousands of vaccines to that 21-year-old.)

I get vaccinated in the next few days. I can’t wait. I can’t wait to get back into the mainstream of life. But I’m aware that I’m only able to do this because I learned about the vagaries of the system and was able to exploit them–and that others aren’t as lucky.