Help is on the way

Adam Pardee / Tribune

Seniors awaiting a potentially life-saving COVID-19 vaccine got a ray of hope after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last week the state would allow anyone 65 or older to get their COVID-19 vaccine. But across the Bay Area, getting an appointment is proving difficult if not impossible. 

The two major local health care providers in San Mateo County, Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Health, both announced on Thursday they would begin vaccinating seniors. Just hours later, however, extremely high call-in wait times and failing websites were plaguing the process. By Monday, both health care systems were buckling under a tsunami of requests. 

Kaiser announced last week it was accepting phone calls from members who are 65 or older to allow them to schedule an appointment. But its system soon became overwhelmed with calls, as patients waited as long as five hours to be connected with a representative to schedule a vaccine appointment. Kaiser tweeted on Friday that its vaccine supply was no match for the millions of seniors now eligible for the vaccine and apologized for long phone wait times. 

“Our phone and online appointment systems are being overloaded with requests for appointments, but the problem is we do not have enough vaccine supply on hand to meet even a fraction of this demand,” Kaiser tweeted Friday. “Until supply increases, it will take months to provide vaccines to all our 65+ members in Calif.”

By Monday, Kaiser had changed its website to advise seniors over 75 to wait for a letter or email letting them know they can schedule an appointment.

Sutter, meanwhile, announced Thursday it would accept appointments for patients 75 or older. By the end of the day and through the weekend, Sutter’s phone line had reached its call capacity, and was directing members to sign up online for a vaccine. But the Sutter Health website portal crashed for many patients.

For county residents above 65 who are uninsured, there are simply no avenues to get a vaccine at this time. San Mateo County announced Thursday that it does not have enough vaccines to begin offering shots to wider groups. The county vaccinated Phase 1a health care workers at the San Mateo County Event Center last week, a total of around 8,000 health care workers, county Public Information Officer

Preston Merchant said. By Monday, the county’s website said it was “transitioning to the next phase, which now includes residents ages 65+ as the supply of vaccine allows.”

“We hope to have more information soon about when we will start vaccinations for persons over 65,” a statement on the county’s website reads. “But for now, we’re asking everyone to be patient, to wait, and let us focus on the current phase of health care workers.”

San Mateo County isn’t alone in being unable to meet the state’s new priority list. On Thursday, just one Bay Area jurisdiction — Contra Costa County — indicated it was offering vaccines to residents 65 and older, and San Francisco listed seniors as eligible but redirected them to their health care providers. By Monday, however, several Bay Area counties announced movements into the next phase, with Santa Clara and Solano counties now vaccinating those 75 or older, and Napa and Marin counties allowing those 65 and older to sign up. 

Meanwhile, some long-term care facilities are facing their own troubles with the vaccine rollout. At Cedar Lane Residential Care Home in Montara, its 16 employees and 14 residents are still waiting for their shots as the required paperwork has bogged down the process. Facility Manager Ilse Serrano said her staff has hustled to get the paperwork completed on time for CVS to come administer the first doses this week through a federally run program.

But getting family authorization forms, health insurance records, personal information and doctor approvals for each resident, many of whom suffer from dementia, has been a lengthy and complicated process. Serrano said families are eager for their high-risk loved ones to get protected as soon as possible.

“They’re really worried about when their family members are going to get it,” Serrano said.

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