In near-freezing temperatures Thursday afternoon, a line of people anxious to receive a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at Rockville’s Richard Montgomery High School stretched from one side of the building, past the baseball stadium and onto Fleet Street in the surrounding neighborhood.
Many in line had been waiting two hours or more, despite having an appointment for Thursday’s vaccination clinic. And many were elderly.
“Well, it’s not fun. The lines about three blocks,” said 79-year-old Michael Stolar.
Montgomery County officials say the long wait times are a result of people who aren’t yet eligible to receive the vaccine signing up anyway. Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for the county Department of Health, said about half of the vaccination appointments made each week are by people who are not eligible, and who are turned away when they get to the head of the line.
Currently, only residents older than 75 and those in Priority Group 1A are eligible to receive the vaccine.
Avis Hammond, 65, said Thursday that she is a healthcare worker at the provider Cornerstone Montgomery and is eligible to receive the vaccine as part of the 1A group. She said she had waited in the cold for two hours, and that many people were not practicing social distancing.
“There’s no six-feet distancing,” she said.
Viktor Buyanov, 59, said he is a caregiver who had signed up to receive his second dose of the vaccine. His appointment was for 10:20 a.m., but at 12:45 p.m. he was still in line.
“There was no explanation …. It’s a mess,” he said. “I don’t quite understand why we have to stay in line if I had an appointment.”
During a call with reporters on Thursday, county Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said hundreds of community members have tried to “jump the line” and get vaccines when they are not eligible.
Gayles said some residents have forwarded the link they receive to register for an appointment to others who are not eligible. On Thursday, one link was shared on a community message board, he said. When people show up to vaccination sites and are determined to not be eligible, they are turned away. This can create long back-ups, like Thursday at Richard Montgomery and Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg.
Gayles said the county has been “very clear about who’s eligible” for the vaccine.
“If you know you don’t meet that criteria, how can you be ultimately upset when you show up and we remind you you’re not eligible,” Gayles said about people’s frustrations when they are turned away at vaccination sites. “You’re creating a system where you’re taking away from someone who is eligible.”
Anderson told Bethesda Beat on Thursday that people should only sign up for an appointment if they are eligible and only if they receive an invitation directly from the county.
“If you are standing in line and you got a link shared by somebody else, and you’re not 75 and older or a frontline healthcare worker, you are taking a shot away from somebody’s mother, somebody’s grandmother, somebody’s elderly neighbor,” she said.
Anderson said there are a limited number of appointments at each site per day, and ineligible people signing up means eligible people can’t get their shots.
“We cannot continue to get through the most important priority groups when people continue to make appointments through shared links,” she said.
Anderson said that county health workers were checking with people in line Thursday at Richard Montgomery High School to make sure they were eligible (A Bethesda Beat reporter did not see anyone checking to determine eligibility).
Part of the problem, Anderson said, is that PrepMod, the state’s system that is used to schedule vaccine appointments, doesn’t filter out people who aren’t eligible yet to receive the vaccine.
Gayles said on Thursday that county leaders are working with the state health department to find a solution, possibly by ensuring registration links cannot be forwarded, or that they can only be used to make a single appointment.
Anderson said Thursday that people also need to refrain from sharing signup links on community listservs. One signup link to the Richard Montgomery clinic was shared on a Silver Spring listserv, she said.
“I’m pulling my hair out and replying to the whole group, ‘no, no, no,’” she said.