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Why Is It So Hard To Figure Out Where To Get Vaccinated For COVID-19?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

OK, pandemic news now. Coronavirus vaccines are available, but many questions persist, like, where do you go to sign up to get one? Do you need to get on a local health department list, or do you contact that hospital where you got surgery a few years ago or hang out at the grocery store in case the pharmacy has an extra dose or two left over at the end of the day? Do you do all of the above? It is a messy, confusing patchwork out there right now, so we have asked NPR health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin to round up a few tips.

Hey, Selena.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Before we get to your tips, why is it such a mess? Health officials knew once vaccines were out there, we're going to need to get the shots out to people.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. But it seems like what happened is there just wasn't a lot of attention on this part of the rollout, the scheduling appointments and managing demand part. So Claire Hannan, who runs the Association of Immunization Managers - the people who worked for months through the fall planning the vaccine rollout in each state - told me that it just wasn't a big focus.

CLAIRE HANNAN: We did talk about this a little bit but not a lot. The focus from CDC and the focus from Operation Warp Speed was that initial rollout. So, yeah, there wasn't a lot of vision for the next phase where we are now.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: And you don't have to tell her that it's a mess. She herself could barely figure out how to get a shot for her dad in Maryland.

HANNAN: He's on the preregistered waiting list for our county since January 15, and we haven't heard one thing. And I'm like, who could possibly be ahead of him? He's 95. Like, come on.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I should say she was ultimately able to get him vaccinated in another county.

KELLY: Oh, well, that's good news. Help us understand one other piece of this puzzle, which is, how does this actually work in terms of the vaccine getting to the places that are scheduling the shots?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. So you can kind of picture this vaccine flowchart. The federal government buys the vaccine doses and then allocates them out to states, and then states distribute them into three separate buckets - local public health departments, hospital systems and sometimes pharmacies. The pharmacy program is actually expanding later this week. But now here is a key point. They don't talk to each other, which is why you might feel like you're clicking randomly from one system to another and they're all different. Local health departments often don't even know who has doses and appointments available in their local areas.

KELLY: So given all this confusion, if it's your turn, if it's your - if you're eligible, what is the best advice for how to figure out where to go and what to do?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The best advice at this point is to start with your state health department website, and that will hopefully tell you, first of all, who's eligible where you are right now and where the doses are being sent in your state. And then you have to check in each of those buckets - public health departments, hospitals and pharmacies. It's a huge pain. You might not get appointments because there's just not enough doses to go around right now. You have to just keep trying. Make sure to have your insurance info handy in case you do get an available slot and need to put that in when you're registering.

And also sometimes, you know, stay tuned for local tips. Like, in Massachusetts, Thursday's the day to check for a slot. In Tennessee, reporter Blake Farmer says the trick is to register in every county. In Maryland, hospitals post new slots every day at 4 p.m. So, you know, pay attention in case there's something like that where you are. And finally, if you need help, there are Facebook groups and other volunteer efforts that have sprung up to try to help folks navigate all of this.

KELLY: It's stressful and exhausting just listening to you describe all the things that we should be doing, like registering in every county in some states.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah.

KELLY: Reassure us this is going to get better.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah. Unfortunately, it seems like the trains have kind of left the station on this. Biden administration officials promised that they're looking at options for something more clear and centralized. But in all likelihood, the patchwork will continue, and the best they may be able to do is smooth out certain areas so it feels a little less slapdash. And also, remember; the patchwork might not be pretty, but people are getting vaccinated. Around 32 million people have gotten first doses so far, more than a million shots a day on average across the country. And more vaccine is coming. Claire Hannan told me she's feeling really good, like the rollout has turned the corner. So the name of the game for everyone trying to figure all this out is patience and persistence.

KELLY: Patience and persistence - all right. Thank you.

That's NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.