RICHMOND — CVS Pharmacy opened its online registration for COVID-19 vaccines early Tuesday, hours after announcing that it would not begin taking appointments for two days.
The national pharmacy chain said it opened the online portal to accommodate Virginia’s concerns about giving first access to people who already had registered for vaccination with their local health districts.
“The state of Virginia asked us to open our scheduling system early for those who pre-registered for a vaccination through their local department of health,” spokeswoman Amy Thibault said. “We have accommodated this request and Virginians who pre-registered can now look for available appointments in our system.”
The move prompted further confusion for Virginians who said all appointments were gone by the time they realized that CVS had opened its website for people to pre-register for vaccinations, which are scheduled to begin on Friday.
“Everyone is frustrated and wants to understand,” said Lynn Spitzer, whose 73-year-old husband, Chip, already had registered with the Richmond health department.
The stakes are high as Virginia and 10 other states look to take advantage of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program that President Joe Biden launched last week with 21 pharmacy companies—including those inside grocery markets and networks that include independent community pharmacies.
Gov. Ralph Northam announced last week that Virginia would partner initially with CVS because of its size and reach to deliver an additional 25,000 doses of vaccine each week to people who are most at risk from COVID-19, including people over 65.
However, the Virginia Department of Health required that CVS only give appointments to people are eligible to receive the vaccine now and already are registered with their local health departments to avoid creating a separate wait list.
“VDH worked closely with CVS over the last week to ensure that the CVS system follows Virginia’s priority guidelines and to provide an advance opportunity for eligible individuals already registered on VDH waiting lists,” the department said in a statement on Tuesday.
“However, due to technological limitations with their national appointment system, CVS is unable to reserve appointments for pre-registered individuals,” the department said. “Virginia will continue to work towards a solution in partnership with other participating states and the federal government.”
State officials said they had wanted CVS only to reserve spots early for people who were already registered with their local health districts, not open the appointment system on Tuesday.
Locally, the Blue Ridge Health District gave a heads-up Monday night to people 65 and older who had pre-registered that CVS was opening up its scheduling system Tuesday.
The CVS system asks individuals if they are 65 years old or older and whether have been notified by a local health department that they can book an appointment. Those who answer ‘yes’ move on the next step. CVS will verify the person’s age at the time of appointment but not whether the person is registered with the health department, officials said Tuesday afternoon.
The appointments were full for the Charlottesville area by Tuesday afternoon. The pharmacy chain has not said which local stores will have the vaccine.
“While we are excited about this extension in vaccination opportunities in our District, COVID-19 vaccines remain limited and CVS Pharmacy will have limited appointments,” BRHD officials said in an email update. “Options for getting a COVID-19 vaccine will continue to expand over the coming months.”
The health district said in the email that it is not involved in scheduling the CVS appointments and can’t assist with that process.
Additionally, the health district said those 65 and older will remain on the vaccine waitlist as efforts to vaccinate the 1b priority group expand.
Roxanne Grandis said she was able to make an appointment for her parents, both 78 and living in Henrico County, at a CVS in Abingdon, about four and a half hours from their home, without verifying that they already were on a local health district list.
“I literally just went through the long list of cities trying each one over and over,” the woman said in an email. “And I finally saw I could get the spots in Abingdon, so I did. They did not ask about pre-registration at all.”
The online appointment system requires people to give their age and verify their eligibility as someone 65 or older who “already is on a local health department wait list in Virginia.”
It then asks them to: “affirm that I have answered the question truthfully and to the best of my knowledge, and acknowledge that I may be asked to verify my eligibility information at my appointment.”
“I also affirm that I will only book an appointment in the state for which I have answered these eligibility questions.”.
Thibault, speaking for CVS, said that people who had pre-registered at local health districts “are NOT automatically registered for an appointment at CVS.”
She also said that CVS would open appointments on Thursday to anyone 65 or older, regardless of whether they already had registered with a local health department.
“Appointments were filled quickly today due to the limited supply of vaccine we will be receiving,” Thibault said Tuesday. “Additional appointments will open as we receive additional doses next week.”
Chip Spitzer, in Richmond, said he was told by a local CVS that the company would begin taking appointments on Friday for vaccinations a week later.
The apparent communications breakdown further confused residents already trying multiple paths to potentially life-saving vaccination, including mass immunization clinics at Richmond International Raceway in Henrico County.
“If we had one place we could get the information from, it would be so helpful,” Spitzer said.
To add your name to the Charlottesville waitlist, go to vdh.virginia.gov/blue-ridge/covid-19-vaccination or call (434) 972-6261.