If you are the child of elderly parents in parts of the United States right now, and if you are trying to get them a COVID-19 vaccine, you are living in a shortage economy, a world of queues and rumors, a shadowy land of favoritism and incompetence—a world not unlike the world of the very late, very stifling, Brezhnev-era Soviet Union.
Picture the scene: We’re on opposite sides of the country, but at 3:59 p.m. eastern time, my sisters and I are sitting in front of our respective laptops, poised to start clicking refresh, refresh, refresh on the website of Holy Cross Hospital in Montgomery County, Maryland. Every few days at 4 p.m.,the site releases a new batch of COVID-19 vaccine appointments, and we’re hoping to score two for our parents. The game is to get through the preliminary pages, to answer pointless questions (Why does it matter what insurance they have? Can’t you ask later?), to write in addresses and ages (they are 81 and 83) in order to get as quickly as possible to the page that has real dates and times. One day last week I actually got through, my hands almost shaking as I clicked on an open appointment. Yes! Eight in the morning! Perfect! Then the page went blank and showed an error message. When I tried again, all of the appointments were gone. It was 4:06 p.m. One of my sisters gave up, she told me later, at 4:07. She’d had two tabs open, trying to do two applications at once, one for each parent.
Hot Rumor No. 1: You know about X? X got the vaccine—she knows someone at the hospital ...
One of my sisters is on an email listserv dedicated to gossip about the vaccine in Maryland. Users share envious stories about people who managed to get vaccinated, and they commiserate with others who didn’t. No one on this listserv is trying to cheat or cut the line. They are all people who are supposed to be eligible right now—essential workers, hospital staff, elderly people—or relatives working on their behalf. But more than 2 million people are eligible right now in Maryland, and only 80,000 doses are available each week. So we are picking our way through the thicket of information and misinformation put out by the distant nomenklatura of Maryland and Montgomery County, trying to make sense of it all. Last week, someone on my sister’s listserv told everyone to rush over to a high school in Rockville; they had vaccines! People duly got in their cars and rushed over to Rockville. I am sorry to say that my sister and my mother got in their car and rushed over to Rockville. False alarm. Of course.
Hot Rumor No. 2: You heard about Y? She got the vaccine. She’s only 22; she’s an intern in the hospital’s administration; she works remotely, and she hasn’t set foot in the building. But they are giving the vaccine to all the administrative staff anyway …
One day this week, I wake up at 6 a.m. and click on the website of the Hyattsville Giant Food, a supermarket that is listed on the Maryland COVID-19 website as a provider of vaccines. No appointments available. I click on the Upper Marlboro Safeway website, also listed. No appointments. I try the websites of Giant Food and Safeway and Rite Aid stores all across Maryland—all listed. No appointments. I call a Walmart that is listed too, out on the Eastern Shore. No appointments. Why 6 a.m.? Because someone on the listserv, or maybe some friend of my mother’s, said they got an appointment at the Waldorf Safeway at 6 a.m. In fact, I have no idea when any of these places release their new appointments, and I have been unable to find out. But 6 a.m. sounds like a nice round number. My sister on the West Coast is planning to try at midnight eastern time; 12 a.m. sounds like a nice round number too.
Hot Rumor No. 3: You heard about Z? He bought 10 vaccines on the black market and gave them to his entire family … (This rumor comes from a European country, and I can’t confirm it. But I did really hear it from a person who heard it from a person who swears it’s true.)
On another day this week, I’m poring through websites for hospital systems—MedStar Health, Adventist HealthCare, the University of Maryland—and registering at all of them except the ones that won’t take my parents. In some cases, you have to be a former patient; you have to be in the hospital’s health-care group; maybe, as the rumor has it, you have to know the right doctor. I registered on the county’s website, of course, then never heard anything back. If I ever get any responses, they take the form of automated messages: Don’t call us. Don’t write to us. Don’t show up without an appointment. We can’t say if we have a waiting list. We have very few vaccines. We almost certainly will never be in touch. Actually, they don’t say that last thing, but we get the picture.
Also, I’ve been unfair: Literally as I was writing this, I got an email from Adventist advising me of new appointments at three separate locations. The email arrived at 9:16 p.m. By 9:23, all of the appointments at all three locations were gone. We didn’t get one.
Hot Rumor No. 4: You heard about M? She registered on a Florida website, gave a friend’s address, flew down to Miami, and got the vaccine an hour after she landed …
The problem isn’t a lack of communication. We are hearing from a lot of people. The problem is that what they say seems so distant from the brutal reality. A quasi-optimistic press release from the county tells us that although “the process is going much slower than anybody would like,” the state’s “retail partners” are up and running—before listing the same four Giants and the same two Safeways that never have any open appointments, ever. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden says he will ramp up vaccine production and deliver more to the states and redouble his efforts: “The end goal is to beat COVID-19.”
It sounds great, but also completely implausible. You all might be living in 21st-century America, but those of us who reside in this new version of Moscow, circa 1975, have to scoff at quasi-optimism. Beat COVID-19? With a bunch of dysfunctional Safeway websites? With dozens of different institutions, each one requiring different forms and a different registration?
Signs that we live in a dying superpower are all around us. Officials seem to make illogical, chaotic decisions; and everything is much more complicated than it needs to be. Could no one have invented an app or a website that assigns people to doses and vaccination sites in order of priority? Is it impossible for Maryland to dump Safeway, take direct control of the process, and order its National Guard to give out the vaccine at schools? How about letting the very oldest people get their shots first—as more orderly countries have done—before opening up the system to a million others?
I get that states are supposed to have a system: Like others, Maryland’s website solemnly lists the various categories of people who are approved to receive the vaccine, and in what order. Like everywhere else, state officials are talking a lot about equity—the need to make sure that poorer communities are getting vaccinated. But this is like the propaganda in Pravda that showed gleaming shops with packed shelves when everyone knew they were empty. In practice, the people who are getting the vaccine first are the ones in the right health-care or hospital groups, the ones who can spend the day clicking links, the ones who are really fast at filling out forms. Supermarket pharmacies and busy hospitals have been left to navigate the mismatch between supply and demand; anyone without a computer or an internet connection is in big trouble. The result is no more fair or logical than an old-fashioned Moscow queue for cabbage.
What’s happening is mystifying. Vaccines are the solution—the scientific marvel that could end the pandemic, stop the mass illness, open restaurants, save music festivals, bring back live theater, rescue schools, reunite families, reignite friendships, restart the economy. But right now their distribution rests on shaky software, suburban pharmacies, evasive press releases, and a swirling, never-ending chain of gossip. Americans had months to mobilize for mass vaccine distribution, and yet no one acted like this was a true national emergency—definitely not in the Trump administration, but also not in Maryland, Montgomery County, or in lots of other places. I take my analogy back: This isn’t Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. It’s something much, much less serious.