Several pharmacies providing the COVID-19 vaccine in Washington have been booking appointments based on outdated eligibility guidelines. That's concerning to health officials and equity advocates who acknowledge it's already difficult enough to find an appointment.
However, as of Thursday morning, CVS, Albertsons/Safeway and Rite-Aid listed incomplete or incorrect eligibility criteria on their websites to book appointments. Without passing these flawed surveys, it is impossible to book an appointment on these websites.
When KING 5 inquired, a spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) called the outdated survey “problematic.”
Washington’s official Vaccine Locator tool collates appointments, but then redirects to providers' sites for direct booking. Many participating private pharmacies are distributing the vaccine under the federal government's "Operation Warp Speed" program.
John Rodriguez, executive director of the Dominican Association of Washington State, worried these hurdles could stop someone from accessing their long-awaited vaccine, when an automated tool incorrectly shows they're not eligible. There has been widespread concern about barriers to accessing coveted appointments, whether it be internet literacy, transportation, or language.
"These pharmacies are not basically doing anything to break those barriers, but adding more barriers to the ones that we already face as a community,” Rodriguez said.
His group has access to a special pool of appointments for BIPOC communities (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) to help improve the equity of the rollout. Still, he worries others using these commercial booking tools could be left out or delayed when their place in line comes.
On Thursday, CVS’ tool did not include eligibility under Tiers 3 and 4, which includes those 16 and up with two or more underlying health conditions, and anyone over 60. So while someone who meets those criteria is entitled to book their appointment, they would have to input incorrect information to get through to the appointment options.
Officials have stressed the need for people to be honest when booking appointments, since much of the process relies on the honor system to preserve doses for higher-risk groups.
Washington recently nixed its “Phase Finder” tool, specifically to remove hurdles to vaccination, in an effort to speed up the process.
A CVS spokesperson contended federal guidelines allow for 72 hours to update their sites, and said the tool would be updated Friday.
Albertsons, which owns Safeway and shares the booking tool, does not require a survey like CVS, but did have outdated criteria listed until KING 5 contacted them, and it was updated.
Rite-Aid’s online tool does not allow users to enter more than one co-morbidity, though two are required under the current Washington phase guideline. It’s difficult to tell if that prevents booking appointments for Rite-Aid, because it appears no appointments are available regardless.
Costco's web tool linked from the Vaccine Locator landed on an error page much of the day Thursday.
These pharmacies operate in states across the country, where a patchwork of contradicting restrictions and eligibility for the vaccine exists.
Lisa Stromme Warren, external communications manager for DOH, said the state wants to make sure vaccine access is equitable, with “no wrong door” to get an appointment and consistent messaging across providers.
“So, the DOH expectation is that all of our provider and pharmacy partners have updated information in their online portals as soon as possible, as people from these newly eligible categories start to make appointments,” she said.
She said DOH has enforcement tools, but those would not come into play unless a pattern of behavior emerged. She expected the department would not intervene unless the issues persisted another day or so.
Rodriguez said 72 hours is too long for updates to be rolled out, since eligibility phase and tier changes are announced by the state days and sometimes weeks before. And with just 15 days until the doors open to all adults in Washington, a three-day delay in booking could impact a sensitive persons’ access in a time when appointments are already tough to find.
“We know that. And we can do, on our end, everything that is necessary to make those changes to inform and educate our communities,” he said. “We don't have to wait until, and even after, the date. Our eligibility criteria are open. Then not updating a site is creating or keeping a barrier.”
For BIPOC residents who qualify under current phase guidelines, appointments are available by contacting 206-567-1189, ext 809, where volunteers speak a variety of languages.