Last week, I asked you, COVID-19 Data Dispatch readers, to send me your stories of challenges you experienced when trying to get this fall’s COVID-19 vaccines. I received 35 responses from readers across the country, demonstrating issues with insurance coverage, pharmacy logistics, and more.
I’ve published the full responses in the table below. Here are a few common themes that I saw in these stories:
- Pharmacies aren’t receiving enough vaccines. Several readers shared that their pharmacies had inadequate vaccine supply to accommodate all the people who made vaccination appointments, or who wanted appointments. Vaccine supply may also be unpredictable—a pharmacy may think they’re getting more shots, but in fact not receive them—leading to appointment cancellations.
- Insurance providers weren’t prepared for this vaccine rollout. Despite months of advance notice that a fall COVID-19 vaccine was coming, many insurance companies apparently failed to prepare billing codes or other system updates that would allow them to cover the shots. A couple of people who shared insurance issue stories are on Medicare—representing a population (i.e. seniors) who should be at the front of the vaccine line.
- Very limited, confusing vaccine availability for young kids. Several readers shared that they were able to get vaccinated, but their children under 12 have not received a vaccine yet. While the FDA and CDC have authorized this fall’s COVID-19 vaccines for all Americans ages six months and older, younger children require a different vaccine formulation from adults. And this formulation appears either entirely unavailable or very difficult to access, depending on where you live.
- People living in less dense areas may need to travel. A few readers shared that, as they searched for vaccine appointments in their areas, the closest pharmacies with doses available were miles away—over 10 miles, in one case. This is a significant barrier for people fitting vaccine appointments into their work schedules.
- Information may be inconsistent. Vaccine availability listed in one place (such as a pharmacy chain’s website or the federal vaccines.gov website) may be inaccurate in another. Some readers shared that they spent extra time on the phone with pharmacies or health providers to get accurate information—another barrier.
- Pharmacies don’t have enough staff for this. Even readers who were able to receive COVID-19 vaccines often had to wait a long time at their pharmacies. Several shared that their pharmacies appeared to be understaffed, dealing with the COVID-19 shots along with routine prescriptions and other duties. The days of mass vaccination sites, efficiently run by public health departments, are long over.
- Kaiser Permanente members face delays. One company that appears to be causing outsized problems is Kaiser Permanente, one of the biggest insurers and health providers on the West Coast. Several readers shared that Kaiser was not providing new COVID-19 vaccines until early October, and would not cover the shots if their members went to another location. That’s a big delay, and it may be further impacted by a coming strike at the company.
- These vaccines are expensive. If you decide to pay for a COVID-19 shot out-of-pocket (as some readers did), it costs almost $200. Even the federal government is paying about triple the cost of last year’s COVID-19 vaccines per shot, for the doses it is covering, STAT News reports. The U.S. may have received a “bad deal” here, STAT suggests, considering all of the federal funding that’s supported vaccine research and development.
As I wrote last week, some news outlets have covered these challenges, but this issue really deserves more attention. The updated COVID-19 vaccines are basically the U.S. government’s only strategy to curb a surge this winter, and they should be easily, universally accessible. Instead, many people eager to get vaccinated are going through multiple rounds of appointments, phone calls, pharmacy lines, and more.
For every one of these readers who has persisted in getting their shot, there are likely many other people who tried once and then gave up. And those people who don’t receive the vaccine will be at higher risk of severe illness, death, and long-term symptoms from COVID-19 this fall and winter. This is a public health failure, plain and simple.
And it’s important to emphasize that this failure is not surprising. Many health commentators predicted that these challenges would arise as the federal public health emergency ended and COVID-19 tools transitioned from government-funded to covered-by-insurance. For more context on why this is happening, I recommend the Death Panel podcast’s latest episode, “Scenes from the Class Struggle at CVS.”
If you’re a reporter who would like to connect with one of the COVID-19 Data Dispatch readers who shared a story, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Most of the people in the database below shared an email or other contact info.
|First name or initials||Location||COVID-19 vaccination challenges|
|Saera||Apache Junction, AZ||Pharmacies near me are not offering it for children under 12. I called the Department of Health to ask if vaccines for children would be available at their walk-in event. They told me that vaccines for children weren’t yet authorized by the FDA. This was on 9/18/2023. They offered to add me to a list and they’re supposed to contact me when they have it for my children.|
|Kelly||Appleton, WI||I originally had an apt Sept 18 at CVS in Target. They canceled the apt the on the 16th saying the vaccine was not yet available. I immediately went and booked a shot at Walgreens for the 18th, grabbing the last time slot available at that location. I showed up 2:30 and while in line heard one of the techs say there were “only a couple left”. When I made it to the front of the line, they couldn’t find my appointment easily, not sure why. They weren’t sure they needed my health insurance card at first, and then I had to redo the paperwork I had done online. I did end up getting the vaccine, but I honestly was not sure it was going to work out that way. One guy in front of me got it, I did, three other people had 3:00 apts, and after that there was only one shot left. I got there at 2:30, and wasn’t done with my shot until 3:09. And then I had to wait the 10 minutes after that.|
|Jenny||Boulder, CO||I have no idea how to get a vax for my 20-month old. The local hospital doesn’t have them, the children’s hospital isn’t doing mass vaccinations, the state is directing me to vaccines.gov.
Vaccines.gov says there are no jabs available within 100 miles of me. So we all might be out of luck if safeway falls through. Someone else on Facebook said that there is a Walgreens by the airport that has vaccinations, so worst case we take a drive I guess?
[Update, a couple of days later:] Safeway had COVID vaccines, but only for 12+. Which we found out once we showed up. So adults got our vax but our preschooler remains unvaccinated. And no clue where to get her one. Have been on hold with pharmacy after pharmacy asking around but most pharmacies just don’t answer the phone. Which you only find out after being on hold for ten minutes.
|Hannah||Brooklyn, NY||My nearest CVS in Brooklyn was out of the new booster when I stopped by on Wednesday, 9/20; they said they hoped to have it back in stock by Monday. I was headed to San Francisco, and I’ll leaving the country for a few months (for work) 9/26. I figured I could just get the booster in SF, but no appointments were available before my 9/26 departure.|
|Katie||Brooklyn, NY||Luckily, I was able to get an appointment 5 days out from when I scheduled it. I scheduled it on Walgreens website. When I went for my appointment it took a while to actually get the vaccine because of wait times and slow paperwork, but overall I was probably there for and hour or hour and a half. I know so many people had a ton of issues scheduling, and then having appointments cancelled last minute or when they showed up being turned away. I was very fortunate not to experience that, I just got lucky.|
|Amber||California||My husband and I had no trouble, but I haven’t been able to obtain a booster for my 9-year-old son. My initial attempts to get an appointment at CVS or Walgreens were just met with “no appointments available” (and then Walgreens would pester me via text and email to “finish making your appointment.”) The CVS pharmacist who gave me my adult booster said they wouldn’t be offering a pediatric version this year. I called a Walgreens, and the pharmacist told me they wouldn’t offer it until it went off EUA and was fully approved (I pointed out to him this made no sense as the CDC had just said everyone over 6 months should get it, and he then walked back what he said.) We tried MyTurn, CA’s government vaccine appointment website, and were able to get an appointment for a pediatric shot. However when I phoned that clinic to confirm, they said they weren’t offering the pediatric COVID shot this year. I tried our pediatrician, who referred me to a different clinic, which also said they weren’t offering the pediatric shot.
It finally became clear that no one has shipped the pediatric shot yet. This would all be fine if pharmacies (or someone! Anyone!) would just announce, “The pediatric shot will be available on date X, or within X weeks,” or whatever. But the only info I can find online is the CDC recommendation that everyone over 6 months should get a booster. It feels like just another way families and children are left behind in the pandemic.
|Anonymous||California||I was scheduled to have my COVID vaccine on Sunday September 17. On September 16 I received a text message saying the vaccine is not yet available and my appointment must be rescheduled. However, my son was able to get his vaccine at the same place on September 16. I discussed it with the pharmacist and was told that there was a problem with people who have Medicare and if I wanted the vaccine I could pay $200. Of course those of us on Medicare are elderly and at the highest risk.|
|Kris||Cambridge, MA||I booked an appt with CVS last week for tomorrow (9/26). CVS sent a text today saying that they don’t have any vaccines at the site I booked and told me to reschedule. When I did, I was offered a different location. There were 10 available slots listed for tomorrow at the new location. Unfortunately, everytime I clicked to reserve one, I got a message saying too many people were signing up for the same slot and to try again. After several attempts at different times, the CVS location disappeared and I couldn’t book another vaccine until 10/2.|
|Michelle||Denver, CO||I called over 50 clinics and finally found one where my 4 yo could get the vaccine—in a different county, and for a fee. We are still looking for vaccine for our 10 year old. We have found two public health units (only one will provide them to non VFC kids) and two pediatric offices, but they will only give them to existing patients. I drove an hour for my 4 yo to get one today because he has long COVID and cannot get it again. I have also spoken to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and they said that clinics had to pre-order to get them this round, that there are limited numbers allocated to the state, and that insurance companies have not made it clear if they will pay for them, despite the government telling them to.|
|Jana||Duluth, MN||My first appointment at Walgreens last Thursday was cancelled as they didn’t get their stock of vaccine.|
|JeP||Ellicott City, MD||I got mine but the pharmacy (Walgreens) was frantically calling other appointment holders to inform them their appointments were cancelled due to lack of vaccine. Walgreens was booking full days of appointments but the pharmacy didn’t receive enough doses for all appointments.|
|Kristen||Germantown, MD||I wouldn’t say a hard time getting the vaccine, but it was more challenging than I expected. CVS texted me the day before my appointment to tell me they did not have the Moderna (spikevax) vaccine in stock and that I needed to reschedule my appointment. There were no other CVS appointments available within 20 miles of me for the next 6 days, also CVS was suddenly only offering Pfizer (comirnaty) vaccine appointments.
Fortunately I was able to schedule an appointment for the same day and time I had before at a Harris Teeter pharmacy 5 miles away from me. I called and they did have Moderna spikevax in stock. The pharmacist at Harris Teeter told me they don’t take many insurance types so I was fortunate they accept mine. I was successfully vaccinated on Saturday.
|SS||Harrisonburg, VA||Scheduled with CVS several days in advance. Got a call 30 minutes before my Saturday morning appointment to say they had run out on Friday without any idea when they’d get more in. Partner had same issue with Walgreens, except they didn’t even call to tell them they’d canceled. We both got it at a Walgreens in a neighboring town, but they had to book me for a flu shot because their computer inventory showed no COVID vaccine doses and wouldn’t allow them to schedule me, though they were able to see and count some available right there in front of them!|
|Leslie||Jamestown, NY||The pharmacies that have the vaccine are not in network for my insurance and those in network don’t have appointments until Oct 20. If I wanted an in network with availability I would have to drive an hour away.|
|CS||Madison, WI||No updated vaccines available through my usual health care provider location. Nearest health care provider location that does have the vaccine is 50 miles away. Nearest Walgreens that has appointments for most updated vaccines is over 10 miles away (the closest Walgreens to my house is about 3 miles away but doesn’t have the updated vaccine available).|
|Bob||Marin County, CA||Kaiser is not making it available at this time and will not pay if it is received via another source. Kaiser estimate “early October” for availability.|
|Anonymous||Midwestern U.S.||Cannot even attempt. Due to a disability, I live with my parents and don’t drive, and despite me being in my 20s, they insist on using a GPS tracker on me, so I can’t walk or get a friend to drive me anywhere without their knowledge. They disapprove of all vaccines, so even though I am of legal age to decide for myself, I have to choose between vaccination and shelter, and I choose shelter.|
|Susan||N/A||Since we travel on Oct 29, we decided to try to get the COVID vaccine a couple weeks before we leave. So trying to book with the local CVS when the vaccine was available, the latest date to get one was Sept 24. So I kept checking back and all the vaccine appointments were taken within a week or so. Then I thought, there’s no more vaccine. When I checked last week, the last date was Oct 7 to book an appointment. So I just went ahead and booked for my husband and I for that date. I thought it was better to book now, than later even if it was earlier than I wanted. So maybe some people are not as persistent as I am and give up.|
|CW||New York, NY||I was specifically seeking Moderna, can’t get it anywhere for a month. I’m also seeing stories that independent pharmacies, such as the one where I prefer to get my vaccines, are not being provided with the doses. Apparently they are all going to mega chains?|
|David||North Carolina||Had an 11am appointment but the pharmacy was unprepared/understaffed. Took about 45-60min to actually get my shot. They did accidentally skip me due to a miscommunication between staff. All in all not as bad as I’ve heard from others. This was the first day it was available and I had no issues with insurance.|
|Ezra||Northern California||A small note on covid vaccine access from here in Oakland, CA. Kaiser Permanente, one of the largest insurers and HMOs in the region says the following as of today (9/24) on its covid vaccine info page:
“Updated vaccines coming soon: COVID-19 vaccines matching the latest strain of the virus have been approved by the FDA and CDC. We’ll be updating our systems to reflect CDC guidance and will begin giving the vaccine once supplies are available (early October). We’re no longer giving the current bivalent booster, which has been deauthorized by the FDA.”
As an HMO, local pharmacies are not in-network, so the million+ members here in the region have zero access to vaccines at all until they launch within the system. I have heard of friends paying out of pocket, or paying a premium to get vaccinated at pharmacies out of network. (And this is not limited just to Northern California – my mom is a Kaiser member in Oregon and it sounds like a similar situation there. A friend in LA says that Kaiser has announced a 9/29 rollout there.)
I just don’t understand why it’s taking weeks for one of the largest, well-resourced, and well-organized health systems in the country to even begin a rollout of a life-saving vaccine! Just another data point about how we do not, as our leaders like to say “have the tools.”
|Anonymous||Northern California||I am a Kaiser member, and Kaiser is far behind retail pharmacies in making the vaccine available—I may have to wait as much as a month, while the Walgreens across the street has it now. Incredibly frustrating, and Kaiser does not guarantee reimbursing if you pay out of pocket, which my husband did ($191) because he had a string of travel/conferences coming up.|
|Steven||Philadelphia, PA||I first made an appointment online at a CVS for my flu and new COVID vaccine. When I got there I had no issue getting the flu vaccine but they said they didn’t take my insurance for the Covid vaccine even though I’d gotten two other boosters at a CVS. So then I made an appointment online with a rite aid who I know more frequently takes my insurance and then they rescheduled it to the next day because there was a delay in them receiving the shipment. When I got there and gave them my insurance card they said they needed a prescription insurance card instead so I went searching and found it. Then I was able to get it finally a week after I had planned to.|
|Anonymous||Philadelphia, PA||I made an appointment at a CVS for ~2 weeks out as soon as the boosters were approved. Fortunately, I heard online that pharmacies were allowing appointments to be scheduled but didn’t actually have the updated boosters. I called a few days prior to my appointment and the CVS confirmed that they *did not* have the updated booster. I asked them if they knew when they’d be getting it, and they told me that their website had the correct information… which of course it didn’t, since the website for that exact location had incorrect information! I had to call around to multiple other locations and chains to find somewhere that had it in stock, even though every location and chain showed the updated booster as available and accepted appointments. I was extremely fortunate to ultimately get the booster at a Walgreens on the day I originally planned. It was way more of an ordeal than it should have been, but sadly way less of an ordeal than what many others I know have experienced.|
|AT||Philadelphia, PA||Scheduled for Sunday the 24th at 11am. Showed up and they told me they canceled it by email at 2am. They recieved 30 doses for their 248 appointments. The fellow in front of me was getting his shot rejected by his Cigna insurance. His copay was $190|
|IW||Port Angeles, WA||Made an appointment online at a local Walgreen’s for late afternoon 9/18/23. Shortly after I arrived, many others showed up for their appointment. Everyone successfully received the vaccine. The pharmacist told me they didn’t receive their doses that morning and had to cancel several early appointments. They borrowed doses from another Walgreens one town over so they could provide vaccines that afternoon. One couple had driven from 90 minutes away because the only place providing vaccines in their town was booked through October. No issues so far with insurance covering it, knock wood! Guess I was fortunate!|
|Andrew||Portland, ME||I made an appointment that was postponed and rescheduled twice, both times due to “availability issues.”|
|PA||Portland, OR||My husband and I booked appointments with CVS a couple of days after we heard the new vaccines were available. We made the appointments for Tuesday but started hearing horror stories from our friends where appointments were canceled, either because pharmacies didn’t have doses available or because the pharmacy said they would need to pay $190 out of pocket because insurance wouldn’t cover it. There was lots of confusion about whether our insurance companies would ultimately cover our vaccines. My husband has a conference in a couple of weeks and so many people we know have covid right now, so we had some urgency. We booked an appointment with Walgreens for Saturday (yesterday) at a location about 30 mins away, which wasn’t ideal but was all we could find. We weren’t sure if that appointment would be canceled, too. But we went yesterday and got our vaccines! Yay! And now I feel like I got hit by a bus but just happy we got our vaccines.|
|BLE||Pueblo, CO||Local Walmart Supercenter had no supply.|
|SZ||Rockville, MD||I have previously gotten all my vaccines through the Safeway pharmacy. But Safeway hasn’t gotten any vaccines. So I tried to make an appointment with CVS, where I get my prescriptions. CVS refused to give me an appointment–the automated message on the website seemed to say that because they had no record of any previous covid vaccines for me, they wouldn’t give me an appointment. I then made an appointment with Walgreens (had to get one 6 miles away–all the nearby Walgreens’ calendars were full up). There was a delay of about half an hour once I got there. I don’t think they have enough people working in their pharmacy to both dispense drugs and vaccines right now.|
|Jen||San Diego,CA||Cannot get an appointment. Kaiser says they won’t cover vaccines outside Kaiser and they aren’t making appointments yet as of 9/25/23.|
|Britta||San Francisco, CA||Didn’t even look for a slot until Sept. 25 based on reports from others that it’s impossible to get an appointment. On Sept. 25 I am now seeing first available openings the week of Oct. 9 but of course they are all in Covid-unsafe locations like a giant supermarket.|
|MT||Seattle, WA||Got an appointment for week of release for a nearby Safeway, it was cancelled due to lack of supply. No other appointments within 20 miles. Have one scheduled close by for Sat 9/29 and another for the week after just in case, so fingers crossed|
|KM||Tallahassee, FL||I went to CVS who told me they wanted $190 for my new Covid vaccine because my insurance didn’t cover it. They said it was because I have a Medicare Advantage plan so my benefits were less than regular Medicaid, which is absurd. I called my health plan and they said the vaccine is covered, just run it through like a prescription and gave me the date of the approval and said CVS could call them to confirm. Back to CVS with this info. Still no. They wanted a prescription from my doctor to administer the vaccine. Called my dr ofc which said they had never heard of this and they knew of others who had already received the shot. Also the dr ofc said to try Walgreens and if I had any trouble, just call back and they would intervene. Went to Walgreens and the process sailed through, they knew what to do and there was no charge. Shouldn’t be that hard to get a vaccine. So I would say stay away from CVS.|
|Paige||Washington, DC||I was told my insurance, CareFirst, declined it because they had not updated their formulary. I was told it would cost $200 out-of-pocket, but that also, the pharmacy (CVS) was “not allowed” to give the boosters to anyone without insurance coverage. So, paying out of pocket and trying for reimbursement was not an option. When I went home, I contacted customer service asking when the formulary would be updated. I later got a form message reply telling me that the COVID-19 vaccine was an essential benefit and covered without cost-sharing, plus a list of providers and pharmacies (including CVS, which I was just at.) I messaged back that they hadn’t answered my question. I also spoke with a Washington Post reporter who was covering vaccine coverage trouble. He reached out to my insurer who told him that vaccines were 100% covered and that I should contact them directly. Later that day, I received another reply to my follow-up message informing me that currently, there was no timeline for starting coverage of the “new” vaccine. I actually shared that with the reporter as well, who then sent that to his contact at my insurance company, since it was a different response than the representative had given him when he inquired about my case. The next day, I got a phone call from CareFirst telling me it would be “10-15 business days” to update billing codes. (I don’t understand why this is a weekslong process, or why they wouldn’t have started this earlier, knowing the vaccine boosters were imminent.) It was obviously a phone call that only happened because a reporter had been prodding them. They also told me they were sorry a representative misinformed me on coverage, which almost made me roll my eyes, because it’s clear they didn’t bother telling employees any information to begin with. My employer also reached out to our health insurance benefits person, to ask why employees were having issues with getting the booster, and the rep actually told our operations person that there was no new vaccine and that it’s all the same one. The ops person had to inform them that, no, that’s not true, and there is an updated booster. She later called back to tell us oh yeah, you’re right, there is a new booster. So, from one insurance company, we’ve been told that the booster isn’t covered, that it IS covered without cost-sharing, that actually we don’t know when coverage will start and there is no timeline, that actually the timeline is 10-15 business days, and also even that there is no updated vaccine. As of today, I still haven’t been able to get a booster, and I have an appointment first week of October that I hope is after CareFirst has sorted it all out.|