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Trying to get a COVID-19 vaccine is like playing roulette

The only predictable thing about the COVID-19 vaccine

The only predictable thing about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout at this point is its unpredictability. Credit: Getty Images/Juan Silva

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Welcome, everybody, to vaccine roulette!

It’s a crazy, new game that requires great endurance, an epic tolerance for failure and, above all, luck.

Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to get stuck in a snowstorm near a carload of health care workers who happen to be carrying a few doses of the COVID-19 vaccine that’s set to expire and needs to be used ASAP. That’s how a few people in Oregon scored their shot the other day.

Or maybe after your vain attempts to sign up for a vaccine at those big pharmacy conglomerates, you’ll be the surprise winner of a hospital’s vaccine lottery. A couple of Chicago people I know have scored that way.

Or maybe you’ll be lucky enough to have a friend who discovers through other friends that a different Chicago hospital is opening vaccine appointments to non-patients. Maybe your friend will share that precious info with you. Maybe, if you hurry, you can call and, after half an hour on hold, get an appointment for a shot in March.

That’s how I, as a member of vaccine group 1b, just got my appointment at Rush University Medical Center, after hours of losing the virus roulette game on assorted websites. I made the appointment gratefully, but painfully aware of how many people are still stuck.

Roulette, says the dictionary, is "something involving a high degree of chance and unpredictability." And the only predictable thing about the COVID vaccine rollout at this point is its unpredictability.

To be fair: It’s important to acknowledge that getting the vaccine to millions of Americans is a vast, daunting operation. A certain amount of confusion is inevitable. Patience is necessary.

But finding a vaccine appointment is testing the patience of saints. Almost everyone I know has a story by now. Of hours spent on the Walgreens site, the Jewel-Osco site, various government sites. Of phone calls made in vain, of tips followed down rabbit holes.

Try early in the morning, someone says. No, try late at night. No, try on Fridays. No, Mondays work best.

In virus roulette, there are no obvious, fixed rules, and even the tech savvy are stymied.

Some of the saddest stories come from people desperately seeking a vaccine not for themselves but for their parents.

"I’ve been manically focused on it for the last three weeks," said Cara DiPasquale who lives near Chicago while her parents live in New York state. "First two appointments I nabbed were then canceled by the county, after promised shots did not arrive."

She then made appointments with the state and Walgreens. This week, at last, her parents got their first doses.

"But," she said, "the system is not — and this is a generalization, of course — designed for the senior set it is intended to serve. Not to mention people without access to a computer or Internet."

Deborah Risteen Mercer echoes that complaint. The Chicago hospital where her mother is affiliated, she said, requires patients to get their app to be notified about the vaccine. But her mother, who’s 89, doesn’t have a smartphone. So she signed up on her mother’s behalf.

"It’s a ridiculous system," she said, "and I don’t know if she could navigate it on her own."

The tortuous systems exist from coast to coast.

"Every health department or grocery store distributor has a totally different system," said my colleague Lara Weber, who has been trying to navigate the mess for her parents in Florida, "and it’s hard enough for me to sort out the website guidance, let alone my parents and their friends."

A friend in California reports that his parents — ages 87 and 88 — had to drive two hours to get their first vaccine dose.

My colleague Georgia Garvey signed up for text alerts about when and where her dad in Florida could get the vaccine, but so far has received only campaign ads for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

"Infuriating," she said.

Pamela Halloran, who lives in Chicago’s western suburbs, has been trying to get a vaccine for her 87-year-old mother, who has dementia. The futility, she said, reminds her of the time she tried to get tickets to the Dave Matthews Band for her son. And in the face of constant futility, she has decided to calm down.

"Why stress?" she said. "We’ve come this far."

That’s the healthiest way to play virus roulette. Remember how far we’ve come in this pandemic, how much stress we’ve endured. The vaccine is getting closer for all of us. With some luck, its distribution will become less of a gamble.

In the meantime, we can keep washing our hands, wearing our masks, keeping our distance and crossing our fingers.

Mary Schmich wrote this piece for the Chicago Tribune.

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