It's Not A Waitlist: D.C. Plans New COVID-19 Vaccine Sign-Up For March Starting in March, D.C. will notify groups of registered individuals when vaccines are available and give them 24 hours to book an appointment.
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NPR logo It's Not A Waitlist: D.C. Plans New COVID-19 Vaccine Sign-Up For March

It's Not A Waitlist: D.C. Plans New COVID-19 Vaccine Sign-Up For March

D.C. plans to revamp its sign-up process for vaccine appointments in March. Steven Cornfield/Unsplash hide caption

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D.C. is revamping its COVID-19 vaccine sign-up process with a series of changes that, officials say, will attempt to build equity into the system.

Starting next month, D.C. Health expects to notify smaller cohorts of eligible residents every week when appointments open up. Those groups would be based on the city's tiered vaccination phases and that week's priority zip codes.

"What we are doing is we're creating equity in the process," D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt said of the forthcoming changes.

Nesbitt clarified in a news conference last week that that the new system will not be a waitlist, an idea that Mayor Muriel Bowser has repeatedly pushed back on.

To receive a notification for an appointment, residents will need to have registered through the D.C. Health portal to indicate their interest in receiving the coronavirus vaccine. Notably, residents will not be scheduled automatically for vaccine appointments; they will still have to make an appointment themselves after the city calls or sends an email to notify them an appointment is available.

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"A waitlist would be that individuals would come onto the system and essentially get in line for a vaccine," Nesbitt told reporters at last week's press conference. "Our process will continue to apply an equity lens...a combination of criteria, including their qualifying eligibility phase, their geography or zip code in which they live based on that zip code's priority in the city, and when they register will be used to determine when they are eligible for a vaccine appointment."

D.C. Health is also reworking when residents can sign up for vaccine appointments.

Currently, vaccine appointments open at 9 a.m. on Thursdays for residents in priority zip codes, and 9 a.m. on Fridays for qualifying residents in all wards. Under this system, appointments have filled up within hours, sometimes minutes, of opening. And despite setting aside appointments for residents of certain wards, seniors in the whiter, wealthier parts of the city have continued to secure more vaccine appointments than those in predominantly Black or low-income neighborhoods, which have experienced the highest death tolls from the coronavirus pandemic.

Critics of local appointment scheduling systems argue that they have privileged those with high-speed internet, time, and tech-savvy connections who can help them secure an appointment more quickly than others navigating them without those advantages.

In the new system, qualified residents will have 24 hours to schedule their vaccine appointment online once they have been notified by D.C. Health of availability, Nesbitt said. The appointment call center, which officials have built out in recent weeks to reach residents with limited access to the internet, will also extend its hours beyond the "eight-hour workday." Nesbitt did not identify what the new hours will be.

D.C. Health did not immediately provide DCist with an expected date for the new system's implementation.

Nesbitt said the new portal is designed to address accessibility concerns that were previously raised by those struggling to navigate the city's initial distribution system. D.C. will continue to prioritize individuals based on zip code and tier-level, but the sign-up process will now be available to individuals outside of the weekly 9 a.m. openings.

"Initially, we got a lot of feedback, often not positive about the standing time about when we release appointments," Nesbitt said. "Nine a.m. doesn't work for everybody. We have people who have jobs that they can't come off of their job assignment to go to the website and claim appointments, and so we're going to attempt to be flexible for that."

Nesbitt also attempted to dispel any confusion ahead of the process's rollout in March, offering a hypothetical scenario of what the new system will look like:

"If we get 3,000 doses of vaccine [one week], I would not notify necessarily 3,000 people all at the same time," she said. "We may break it down and notify a subset of those people, give them the opportunity to say yay or nay, and then roll to the next group of people — in increments of time that would allow people to accept or decline."

The new system comes as D.C. expects to move into the last tier of Phase 1B later this month (vaccinating the District's more than 9,500 grocery store employees). But the changes also come in response to criticism for how officials have navigated inequities in vaccine distribution while doling out a limited supply of doses.

The city expects to receive more than 14,000 doses of the vaccine this week, up 50% from its weekly allotment two weeks ago. Even so, demand for the vaccine has far outpaced the federal supply in the weeks since the first doses arrived in the region. As of Feb. 13, D.C. has administered 87,289 doses of the vaccine — less than half of the more than 200,000 people currently eligible under the city's vaccination plan. Last week, Nesbitt said that 70% of D.C. residents 65 and older will have received the vaccine by the end of the month, allowing the city to expand the rollout to grocery store employees in the coming weeks.

But narrowing the yawning gaps in vaccine distribution continues to be a concern for local officials and community leaders. Last week, D.C. Mayor Bowser, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam penned a joint letter requesting that the federal government step in to vaccinate the region's federal workers, citing the burden the responsibility for these vaccinations has placed on their overwhelmed local health departments.

The city also has taken steps to address inequities in accessibility to vaccine appointments by prioritizing harder-hit zip codes and partnering with local churches and community health clinics for vaccine distribution. But Wards 7 and 8, which have recorded among the highest death tolls in the city, still have seen the lowest percentage of older residents vaccinated at 18.7% and 16.3%, respectively. Ward 3, which has vaccinated 58.5% of its older residents, has reported the second-fewest deaths of D.C.'s wards, just behind Ward 2.

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