'Like the Hunger Games': Older Iowans seeking COVID vaccine feel pitted against each other for survival

Iowans describe vaccine search frustrations

Paraeducator Beth Goodman talks with school nurse Diana Flannery with excitement after receiving her first dose of the c
Paraeducator Beth Goodman talks with school nurse Diana Flannery with excitement after receiving her first dose of the coronavirus vaccine at Washington High School in Washington on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Hang up. Dial. Busy signal. Hang up. Dial. Busy signal.

For five hours, Eileen Beran punched the buttons on her phone over and over again, trying to connect with the local public health department to schedule a COVID-19 vaccine for her and her husband, William Beran.

The Washington County Public Health Department had announced it was opening a call center to schedule appointments for a vaccine clinic. Eager to have one of those appointments, 66-year-old Beran said she and her husband continuously hit redial for hours.

“I never got through to anything except a busy signal,” said Beran, a Kalona resident.

They are among the tens of thousands of Iowans trying — and mostly failing — to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine in recent weeks after eligibility under the state’s vaccine distribution plan opened to those aged 65 and older.

Demand for the vaccine far outweighs the supply of doses in Iowa at this time, leaving no clear answers on how long residents may have to wait for a shot.

While that is a source of concern, several qualified Iowans who spoke to The Gazette have criticized the state’s COVID-19 vaccine plan, frustrated that the disjointed distribution seems to be leaving vulnerable individuals to fend for themselves.

Many older Iowans do not have internet access or lack the technical skills needed to track down and schedule a vaccine appointment in their area — challenges that have raised anxiety for those eager for protection against the novel coronavirus.

State and local officials continue to ask for patience from residents eager for a vaccine. But for some such as Beran, the request is beginning “to feel patronizing.”


“We’ve been patient, we’ve been careful,” Beran said. “We’ve been sacrificing for a long time.”

More than one individual described the vaccine rollout as the Hunger Games, with Iowans pitted against each other.

“It’s an ethical and moral question for us,” said Monica Vernon, executive director of the Czech Village New Bohemia Main Street District in Cedar Rapids. She managed to track down vaccine appointments for her parents earlier this month.

“We need help from leaders at the state level because people want to see fair and equitable distribution,” Vernon said.

“People are paying attention, they know that person got it and they didn’t. We don’t want to be in a situation where the person who was waiting for the vaccine dies of the virus.”

Jumping Through 21St Century Hoops

Many Iowans are scheduling appointments for parents and grandparents and friends who aren’t tech-savvy enough to find a vaccine, including Renee Dietrich of Cedar Rapids, who has scheduled 13 vaccine appointments as of Thursday morning.

After successfully scheduling an appointment for her 85-year-old mother, Lucy Dietrich, friends began reaching out to ask for help finding appointments for their older parents.

Dietrich said many of her friends began the process of tracking down a shot, but ran out of time because of their jobs and families or lost their patience with the complicated steps required by some scheduling systems.

“Even computer savvy older Iowans are struggling,” said Dietrich, 52, who has been living with her mother and working remotely for about a year.


Her process? Every morning at 6 a.m., Dietrich turns on the computer and refreshes the CVS and Walgreens websites every 15 seconds for an hour, waiting for the appointments to pop up.

In total, Dietrich estimates she’s spent somewhere between 20 to 30 hours over the past three weeks tracking down appointments.

“They wouldn’t have got them otherwise, and they need to be vaccinated,” she said. “If we’re going to get a handle of this pandemic at all, it’s not just my mom’s vaccine that matters. My friend’s mom matters, too.”

Dietrich added that, “We’re ignoring that entire generation, assuming they can jump through 21st Century hoops we put up for them. Expecting that generation to do that is cruel.”

Jessica Abdoney is a 24-year-old Mount Mercy University student who managed to find vaccine appointments for her 76- and 80-year-old grandparents this past week — but not without a few hiccups.

The CVS website crashed while she tried to schedule her grandmother’s appointment, and another glitch logged her out of the account while scheduling her grandfather’s shot.

But it wasn’t just the glitches that made Abdoney feel distrustful when the appointments were confirmed.

“I had this horrible feeling, this pit in my stomach, like the appointments were going to be canceled,” she said. “I called CVS twice to make sure they had an appointment.


“It’s not that I don’t trust pharmacists, I just don’t trust the government and the (vaccine) distribution right now.”

‘There Has To Be A Better Way’

Gov. Kim Reynolds announced early this past week the state no longer is moving forward with a plan to have Microsoft create a centralized online system for COVID-19 vaccine scheduling in Iowa. Instead, the governor said officials are looking at options to expand current systems established by local and private entities, but offered no other details.

Distribution as well as the effort to plan clinics has fallen onto local county public health officials, health care providers and other vaccine administrators throughout the state.

Those agencies, which already have been grappling with the pandemic over the past several months, are now being inundated with phone calls from Iowans seeking a vaccine.

Reynolds directed seniors to call AARP or their local Area Agency on Aging for assistance, but these organizations are unable to actually schedule an appointment for Iowans.

“Our goal is the same, we want them to be vaccinated, too,” said Danielle Pettit-Majewski, administrator at Washington County Public Health. “It’s heartbreaking when people get so frustrated. There has to be a better way.”

Some county-based public health agencies, such as Washington County’s, have established scheduling systems that don’t require internet access to reach more eligible Iowans.

But without assistance from the state or other partners, Pettit-Majewski said they are struggling to keep up.

Washington County Public Health has established a weekly call-in for residents aged 65 and older to contact the department and schedule an appointment on a first-come, first-served basis through a call center in the county’s new $3.5 million Emergency Operations Center.


Even with several staff members manning eight phone lines, the process is “chaotic,” Pettit-Majewski said.

“Even that wasn’t enough,” she said. “We almost need Ticketmaster-level capacity to do it, and we don’t have that.”

With several vaccine sites offering their own appointment scheduling system, the process to find a shot is overwhelming, Vernon said. She estimates she tried more than a dozen times at various vaccine providers before she could set up her parents’ appointments.

“There’s got to be a better way instead of having so many agencies involved,” Vernon said. “The challenge is that it’s too much and these people are having to do all the work to find a shot.”

Kalona residents Eileen and William Beran ultimately found available appointments at a Cedar Rapids Hy-Vee and received the first dose of the vaccine this past week.

It’s a relief to the couple, who said they are looking forward to the chance to see their grandchildren in person again. But Beran said she feels for those who are still seeking out a shot.

“I keep thinking about someone who doesn’t have the ability or motivation to sit on the phone for five hours,” she said.

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