Communication — clear, concise and regular — can prevent a lot of problems.
Unfortunately, communication is what has been most lacking in the confusing, discouraging rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine — nationally, in Maryland and here in Frederick County.
A large part of the problem is that almost no one knows what is happening — at any of those three levels. But sometimes, it is as important to tell people what you don’t know as it is to tell them what you do know.
The first failure was the Trump administration’s refusal to help or guide states. The administration rightfully gets praise for pushing companies to develop the vaccine. But its rollout was just as badly bungled as the testing program at the onset of the pandemic.
As a result, the program has been a study in frustration for most people, especially the senior citizens who are the most endangered by the deadly virus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered suggestions for who should be vaccinated and in what order but did nothing to help states understand how best to get their citizens actually injected with the vaccine.
States tried many different approaches with mixed results at best. In Florida, 80-year-old couples camped overnight in their cars, waiting in line for shots. California’s program was so chaotic it gave up and hired an insurance firm to run it.
In our region, chaos reigns. Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney characterized it this way: “Canceled appointments. Insufficient doses. Contradictory eligibility rules. Infuriating websites.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan largely left it to county health departments to devise their own programs, but he has also stepped in with rule changes that differ from county rules. The result has been confusion compounded.
Without clear guidance, ordinary people have been left to their own devices to find a vaccination. You can go on the Frederick County Health Department website to fill out a “Vaccination Interest Form” with the promise that someday you will hear from the county.
The county is trying, collecting email addresses from those who sign up for updates. But everyone gets the general information. If you are in Group 1C, you will look in vain for information about what is happening with your particular group.
As of this week, the county website said it was still restricting vaccines to Group 1A, which includes health care workers, residents and staff of nursing homes and first responders, but also including residents over 75.
Gov. Hogan had announced last month that anyone in Group 1A, 1B or 1C — assisted living residents, teachers, essential workers and anyone over 65 — can now be vaccinated, but the county Health Department tells 1C and most 1B folks not to make appointments.
The state is also distributing vaccines to some Giant Food stores. Because the stores follow state rules rather than county rules, they are giving shots to people between 65 and 75. But the appointments are few. You can wait in a virtual line on the website for an hour or more, only to be told that no appointments are available. When will more appointments be scheduled? No one knows.
Primary care doctors are another avenue for vaccination, but the process is no clearer there. Frederick Health has vaccines, but its website says it will only administer to patients 75 and older in its Medical Group.
We’ve just learned that starting Feb. 11, CVS pharmacies will begin providing COVID-19 vaccinations at 18 locations in Maryland, including in Frederick. Appointments will become available for booking as early as next Tuesday. No additional details were available Wednesday.
Johns Hopkins Community Healthcare’s website warns that vaccine supplies are small and unpredictable. It added: “We encourage individuals to take advantage of all vaccine options available in their state and local areas.”
Good idea, except that leads folks to share random links with family, friends and neighbors, leading to websites that either do not work or are not intended for them. For a while, people in Montgomery and Frederick counties were making appointments in Prince George’s County, only to have their appointments canceled so more Prince George’s residents could get their shots.
Others made appointments here in Frederick, only to find that the slots were restricted to people getting their second dose. Once again, appointments canceled.
All of this might have been avoided with a clear federal system. Failing that, if might have been avoided with a unified state system that was ready to start as soon as the first vaccines were available.
Instead, we have cobbled together a dysfunctional system that does little to reassure fearful residents. It is a system failure top to bottom, one that is made worse by communication failures at all levels.