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.