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Vaccination frustration

Matt Kelly
The Chronicle-Express

PENN YAN – Last Monday, when COVID-19 vaccinations were opened to eligible people in Phase 1B as well as Phase 1A, Sarah Davis of Penn Yan started trying to get an appointment for her 84-year-old mother, Ruth. She quickly became frustrated.

Davis began by going to the New York State Department of Health (DOH) website and used the “Am I Eligible” feature to find possible locations. What she found was a list of sites stretching from Penn Yan all the way down to New York City, and the list changed each time she checked it. She then went to the individual websites of counties surrounding Yates, but all of their appointments were full.

Finally, Friday morning, Davis sent an email to Yates County Public Health, letting the department know about the trouble she was having. She received a response within minutes, saying that there was now a link on the Public Health website she could use to schedule an appointment at a local pharmacy. Davis immediately clicked on the link and was able to quickly reserve a slot for her mother at the Rite Aid at 138 Elm St. in Penn Yan on the following day.

Despite a frustrating process, Sarah Davis was early enough to get a first round Covid vaccination for her mother, Ruth, just hours before all the available doses and time slots were taken.

"It worked really well," Davis said about using the Rite Aid website. "But I think people are going to have to get on there right away."

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Jan. 8 that more than 1,200 pharmacies had committed to participating in an expanded vaccination network throughout the state, with nearly 500 planning to begin scheduling appointments the same week that Davis began her search. As of last Friday, Jan. 15, information on the Yates County Public Health website said that 12 Rite Aid stores in the Finger Lakes region would start receiving the COVID-19 vaccine at stores in Genesee, Monroe, Ontario, Wyoming, and Yates counties.

However, despite this news and Sarah Davis' experience, it's not certain how much the pharmacy expansion will actually accelerate the rate of vaccination in Yates County in the near future.

According to the Public Health website, pharmacy appointments are only available to individuals 65 years and older. All other community members eligible under Phases 1A and 1B must continue to schedule appointments at other locations.

At the time of publication, the NYSDOH website had no pharmacies listed for appointments. The only locations available were mass vaccination sites across the state, with the nearest one being the Rochester Dome Arena in Henrietta.

As of Saturday – the day after Davis scheduled an appointment for her mother – the Rite Aid website had the following message: "There are currently no appointments available. Please check back tomorrow as we continue to add availability." At the time of publication, the Rite Aid website still had the same message and was not scheduling appointments.

Tracey Knapp, pharmacist and owner of Water Street Pharmacy in Dundee and Village Drug in Penn Yan, said she has applied to the state to provide the vaccine at both her locations, but has not yet received any doses. She said she isn't sure where her pharmacies fall on the list for receiving the vaccine or when it might be distributed to her.

When Sarah and Ruth Davis arrived at the Rite Aid on Saturday afternoon, they filled out one page of paperwork and then sat in the waiting area along with one other couple waiting for the vaccine. After around 20 minutes, a Rite Aid staff person brought the Davises into a private room next to the pharmacy, where Ruth received her shot. After another 15 minutes waiting for any possible allergic reaction, they left the room and headed home.

Friday, the Rite Aid website was scheduling appointments at 10 minute intervals, potentially allowing six people to be vaccinated per hour at a given location. Based on the Davises' experience, it appeared that the rate of vaccination might be three to four people per hour. Either way, this stands in sharp contract to the 30 people per hour that Yates County Public Health averaged at its most recent community clinic.

Davis felt she was fortunate to get on the Rite Aid webpage when she did because there were only a few people in the virtual line ahead of her. When she looked back an hour later, there were 1,500 people in the virtual line.