Why Did the CVS Vaccine Rollout Go Wrong?

By Amie Knowles

February 9, 2021

Virginia will get 26,000 additional COVID-19 doses, but the rollout got off to a rocky start.

RICHMOND-Virginia’s CVS vaccination rollout didn’t quite go as planned. From Monday night to Tuesday afternoon, the operation went through multiple start dates, changed eligibility requirements and finally endured a system crash. Now officials ask for patience as they try again.

The expectations came from a Feb. 4 press conference. Gov. Ralph Northam told people that CVS would start vaccinating Virginians this week. He also spelled out who could get the vaccine at the pharmacy.

“We have worked with CVS to start with their stores that are within reach of people who are more vulnerable,” Northam said. “Those age 65 and up, those who are of low-income and those from disadvantaged communities.”

By Tuesday morning, that list had been changed to just those 65 and older. Also, as of Tuesday afternoon, confusion abounded around when people could sign up.

A Shifting Date

Originally, the plan was simple. People could sign up at 36 CVS locations in Virginia on Feb. 11. Then vaccinations would start Feb. 12. This was supposed to be a test run of sorts, helping pharmacy employees address issues before expanding across the state. The Virginia Department of Health even sent out a reminder Monday night to media. But then things changed.

CVS had planned to simply take appointments on a first come, first serve basis. But the health department asked for some changes.

“[We] started to make plans about how do we ensure that CVS’s vaccine appointment opportunities are integrated into our plan,” said state vaccination coordinator Dr. Danny Avula. “How do we honor the folks who have been on our various pre-registration lists, through all the local health lists? We know that there are tens of thousands of people who are in line through those pre-registration lists.”

Across the state, thousands of people 65 and over signed up for pre-registration lists. However, those lists hadn’t been shared with CVS. As a last minute fix, Avula and his team asked CVS to open their scheduling system early, starting on Feb. 9 rather than Feb. 11. The goal was to transfer everyone who pre-registered over, filling up as many available spots as needed. Any extra spots could go out on a first come, first serve basis.

RELATED: CVS Joins Virginia’s Vaccine Effort, But What Does That Mean?

There’s Just One Problem

CVS officials, however, said that would cause problems.

“They came back to us with a few challenges,” Avula said. “One, that they have a standard, national registration platform. They weren’t able to kind of write code and make adjustments.”

Unable to transfer those people on the pre-registration list, Avula’s team made another suggestion. They wanted CVS to create a unique password to share with the pre-registered group. Similar to when concert tickets go on pre-sale, those on the list could simply log in and set up a vaccination time. That didn’t work either.

“CVS was very willing to explore opportunities with us, but they were not able to offer a technological solution that would allow us to pre-register folks who had already been waiting on our lists,” Avula said. 

Finally, the two groups reached a compromise.

“Where we ended up was that they would create a two-question questionnaire,” Avula said. “[it] basically said ‘Are you 65 and over’ and ‘Have you pre-registered on your health department list?’ And if you met those two criteria, then you could go and make an appointment.”

CVS agreed to open the appointment scheduler early. Officials at Virginia’s different health districts were then able to take the registration lists and connect with people, to make sure each had the opportunity to sign up.

A Difficult Situation 

Unfortunately, when CVS opened their pre-registration Tuesday, the platform did not limit access. While Aulva’s team intended for only pre-registered residents over age 65 to be able to get appointments, anyone on the internet at the time the registration went live was able to sign up. 

“All of those appointments were taken up pretty rapidly,” Avula said.

However CVS plans to confirm each citizen’s age at their appointment. If someone under age 65 got a COVID-19 vaccine appointment through CVS, Avula asked that they cancel their slot. 

“Those appointments were not open to individuals under 65. They will be asking for ID and proof of age at the appointment,” Avula said. “So, if you have an appointment but aren’t 65, then you should cancel your appointment and just make sure you’re in line through the local health department’s registration list.”

The CVS plan does not meet all of the requests Avula’s team made. However, the doctor noted that it’s a first step.

“[It’s] not an ideal rollout, but at the end of the day, we are thankful that it’s a way to pull down more vaccine into Virginia,” Avula said. 

So What Does That Mean?  

So what happens now? Starting Thursday, everyone over 65 in Virginia can look for appointments with CVS. This week’s appointment list has been filled, but more spots will open, CVS officials said, as they receive more doses.

Registration for vaccination appointments will be available on the CVS website or by calling (800) 746-7287. 

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected] 

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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