Vermonters face limited appointments and insurance mixups with new Covid vaccines
Jeff Lane, an emergency medical technician from Peacham EMS, administers a dose of the Covid vaccine at a clinic in Beecher Falls in March 2021. Many Vermonters are having trouble finding available appointments for the new Covid booster shot. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger
The federal government authorized new Covid-19 boosters on Sept. 11, paving the way for millions of Americans to get updated protection tailored toward recent strains of the disease.
Two weeks later, the vaccine has slowly started making its way to Vermont pharmacies and health care providers — but many Vermonters report that appointments are difficult to find.
Katherine McDonald, a Maryland resident who lives part time in Barre, told VTDigger she scoured the pharmacies in Barre and Berlin and found no available appointments into October. She even visited the pharmacies in person to double-check that they wouldn’t take a walk-in, only to be told that they could only schedule slots online.
Ultimately, she found an appointment for this weekend in Morrisville, a lengthy drive away for the 77-year-old McDonald.
“There’s so much controversy among folks about whether to get the shot for a lot of different reasons,” she said. “If you have trouble making an appointment, a lot of people may not persevere.”
A search of major pharmacy chain websites appears to back her experience. CVS, Hannaford, Walgreens and Kinney Drugs had no appointments listed in central Vermont as of Tuesday, and few appointments listed elsewhere in the state in places like the Northeast Kingdom.
Vermont is not the only place with limited Covid vaccine appointments available. National news outlets have reported a limited supply of doses at national pharmacy chains as Moderna and Pfizer begin to ship out the latest booster.
Katie Warchut, a spokesperson for the Vermont Department of Health, said the supply of Covid boosters is limited, but the vaccines would be more broadly available in coming weeks.
“We appreciate Vermonters’ patience,” Warchut said in an email.
Matthew Blanchette, a spokesperson for CVS Health, said the pharmacy chain was receiving doses on a rolling basis and advised Vermonters to continue to check its website for new appointments.
John Marraffa Jr., president of Kinney Drugs, said in a statement that the company had not experienced a “shortage” of the Covid vaccine, but that it planned to “open appointments only when we have enough vaccine to take care of those patients.”
The limited supply comes amid changes in how Covid vaccination campaigns are being handled at a state and federal level. Covid vaccines are now commercialized, meaning the federal government is no longer taking an active role in supplying doses to the states. Instead, each pharmacy or pharmacy chain is responsible for arranging its shipments, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website.
Warchut said the commercialization has also led to issues with various insurers nationwide in covering their members’ vaccinations, as reports arise of insurance denials and delays. She said the federal government had contacted insurers to help resolve them.
This is also the first year since the vaccine became broadly available in 2021 that the health department does not plan to host any mass vaccination clinics, Health Commissioner Mark Levine told Vermont Edition on Tuesday.
Some Vermonters have complained that the system for finding Covid vaccines is overly complicated. Burlington resident Kate Van Wagner said the vaccines.gov website, which was created to help Americans find vaccines, is “useless.”
“(It) shows a bunch of availability, but when you click through to individual pharmacies, they don’t have any appointments for adults,” she said via email. She also couldn’t find any appointments for her 5-year-old child within 100 miles of Burlington.
She wrote that she was experiencing “deja vu” to the time period when young children were not yet eligible for any Covid vaccine.
“Covid (is) raging all around us,” she wrote. “We supposedly have this additional layer of protection available, but functionally it is absolutely not available.”
Warchut said she could not yet say how many Vermonters have been vaccinated with the latest booster. The health department plans to begin providing data in late October, after the numbers become high enough to avoid privacy concerns.
As of April 2023, the last time the department published data, 35% of Vermonters 5 and older had received an updated Covid booster dose. That’s compared with 80% of the total Vermont population who had completed the primary series of the Covid vaccine.