‘It’s a relief’: As some newly eligible Danbury-area residents quickly secure appointments, others still struggle

Photo of Currie Engel
Liz Cavo, RN, prepares to administer the Moderna COVID-19 vaccination to Danbury teacher Ryan Mingachos at a vaccine clinic at Rogers Park Middle School in Danbury, Conn., on Saturday Mar. 6, 2021. Over 900 teachers and staff received the Moderna vaccine during the two-day clinic.

Liz Cavo, RN, prepares to administer the Moderna COVID-19 vaccination to Danbury teacher Ryan Mingachos at a vaccine clinic at Rogers Park Middle School in Danbury, Conn., on Saturday Mar. 6, 2021. Over 900 teachers and staff received the Moderna vaccine during the two-day clinic.

Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticut Media file photo

Instead of scrambling online at midnight Friday or hopping on the phone at 8 a.m., 46-year-old Jessica Hoyt secured a vaccine appointment quickly and quietly on her phone in the hour before she had to take her son to karate on Thursday afternoon.

Hoyt said the scheduling was hassle-free. She remembered Facebook posts where New Milford Mayor Pete Bass talked about their local clinic and navigated to the town’s website.

There she said she followed directions, and selected an appointment for herself and her husband at the John Pettibone Community clinic for the following Tuesday.

“It’s a relief, to be honest,” Hoyt said as she sat in her car outside the karate studio Thursday night.

On Friday, COVID-19 vaccine eligibility expanded to include residents ages 45 and up, a timeline which had been moved up by Gov. Ned Lamont just four days earlier. Hoyt, by chance, managed to get her appointment approved ahead of time.

As midnight approached on Thursday, members of a Facebook group called “New York / Connecticut Vaccine Hunters and Angels” eagerly posted questions in anticipation of appointments opening to their age group.

The feeling was one of an exclusive, much-anticipated event, whose tickets were elusive and sporadically released. But, the stakes for vaccine appointments were much higher, the tone more desperate.

“Has anyone in the 45+ group gotten their second VAMS (Vaccine Administration Management System) email?” one member posted, referring to the federal signup system.

Comments rolled in: “No.” “Nope.” “Not yet.” “Nothing.”

“It’s midnight, the witching hour,” another post said. “Anybody in CT in the 45+ age group having luck signing on to get an appointment right now? What site?”

But this time, as residents readied themselves to secure an appointment, some residents seemed to be more savvy. Shareable spreadsheets, posted on Facebook groups, give detailed instructions on various methods and tips for securing appointments across the state.

Online, people offer advice about their own journey: what worked for them and what didn’t. Some are creative, instructing eligible people to select “Alabama” or “Utah” on CVS’s dropdown menu to gain entry, then putting in their proper Connecticut ZIP code.

But appointment-securing tactics are still hit-or-miss for residents.

Even with expanded eligibility, it is unlikely that most local clinics have been able to increase or expand their own appointments unless they get an increase in supply.

This has been a common refrain among local officials in Danbury, Brookfield, and New Milford: We can only do as many vaccinations as the state gives us doses.

New Milford has just opened its closed clinic to all those who are eligible, making appointments available through VAMS and its town website, where Hoyt made her appointment.

Health Director Lisa Morrissey said within 30 seconds, the 75 new appointments they’d loaded into VAMS had been taken. It happened so fast she was worried about an upload error.

Danbury does not expect to be able to host 45- to 55-year-olds at its Rogers Park clinic this month because it’s fully booked through the next few weeks, said Taylor O’Brien, Mayor Joe Cavo’s spokeswoman.

“Most clinics don't open appointments too far in advance because vaccine doses are allocated from the state weekly,” writes O’Brien in an email. “I see a lot of frustration in the community about not finding immediate appointments, so I would recommend people continue to check back as new appointments may open on VAMS.”

But with more providers coming online in the past few weeks — local pharmacies like Walgreens, CVS, Stop & Shop — along with local clinics opening or expanding in places like Brookfield and New Milford, residents have more options.

On Monday, Lamont announced the state expects to start receiving 200,000 initial doses per week from the federal government by the start of April.

In New Milford, Bass said the overall mood was positive.

The town is telling people to use any option and check all providers for appointments. While it has expanded its eligibility criteria and loaded appointments in VAMS, Morrissey said about 20 percent of appointments would be set aside for specific populations, including non-native English speakers.

Unlike Hoyt, Victoria Flanagan, 22, was up at 4 a.m. to help her mom get an appointment before both started their workdays. Each used their own computers, refreshing the pages, and after about an hour, they found a Tuesday spot at a CVS in Danbury.

While the Newtown special education paraprofessional is relieved they secured that appointment, she’s more concerned about what will happen April 5 when she tries to register her 19-year-old sister with Down syndrome.

Her sister is high risk, and struggles to understand why she has to wear a mask in public, and about the virus in general. The closest thing to being able to get her “out of the house” in the past year has consisted of a McDonald’s drive-through, Flanagan said.

If Flanagan can’t get a homebound spot for her sister, she plans to employ a similar tactic to the one she had this morning.

At this point, many have watched family, friends and neighbors struggle with the process. They’ve heard about — or helped with — online registration and endless page refreshes.

They’ve also been privy to the initial technical hiccups with older residents’ use of VAMS, and the general dearth of appointments. So when they find out new information, many share with friends and family.

Hoyt had been discussing vaccine appointments and side effects with her girlfriends last weekend. As soon as she found a spot in New Milford on Thursday, she sent a text to her best friend.

“I’m kind of relieved I don’t have to panic and go all over the place trying to find something,” she said.