The county's COVID-19 vaccination portal at www.santacruzcountyaz.gov/732/COVID-19-Novel-Coronavirus.

Beginning in early January, Santa Cruz County residents looking to get inoculated against COVID-19 have “pre-registered” through a portal on the county website. The pre-registration form asks for some basic information – name, date of birth, email address – as well as which priority category the registrant falls into – teachers, those in older age groups, “essential workers” and so on.

After the registrant submits the form, a new screen pops up – a green circle with a check mark, and a message: “Great, your data was sent successfully. Thanks! You will receive a call in the near future to set up your appointment.”

Jeff Terrell, the county’s health services director, said more than 12,000 people have put their name into the county’s database through the pre-registration portal. Data from the Arizona Department of Health Services showed that as of Thursday, more than 6,900 people had received at least one dose of the vaccine in Santa Cruz County.

Health officials say the pre-registration system alleviates the headache of manual appointment scheduling and helps authorities quickly identify and set appointments for individuals who fall into specific prioritization groups.

But some people eager to receive the shot have struggled to use the pre-registration portal and haven’t found the answers they’re looking for from the county. Their complaints include problems entering information into the portal, trouble confirming their registration and a lack of communication about how long it will take to get a call and ultimately set a vaccination appointment.

Terrell said that the system works the way it’s designed to, and that residents need to be patient as the county decides who will receive a limited number of doses.

Jerzy Wilus, a 69-year-old Rio Rico resident, is one of those who struggled with the portal. In January, he tried to pre-register for the vaccine using his Android phone, but found that he would have needed to scroll through every month between January 2021 and his birthday to enter the correct date: December 2020, November 2020, October 2020 and so forth, back to 1951.

Terrell said he’d heard about issues using the portal, which he said wasn’t designed for mobile devices, on phones. But he said that changing the system wouldn’t be possible now that it’s already in use.

Wilus, frustrated, said he called the county and gave his information over the phone to someone who promised to put him into the system manually. But after pre-registering by phone, he didn’t have any confirmation that he was on the list. So, to verify his place, he called the county again in late January. He was told that HIPAA, a medical privacy law, prevented county staff from confirming his pre-registration.

That struck Wilus as odd: “I don’t want to know who else is on it, I want to know if I’m even on (the) list,” he said.

He said he tried calling the health department again, got transferred around, left a voicemail and never got a call back. “Finally I just said, well, the heck with it,” he recalled this week.

Terrell said that HIPAA doesn’t mean an individual can’t check their own place on the list, but said it wasn’t easy – or a priority – for county staffers to confirm individual registrations.

“If you’ve registered and you’ve got that green check mark, (then) you’re in our registration, you will receive a call,” he said.

Timeline still unclear

At 69, Wilus is part of a group that faces a higher risk of falling seriously ill or dying from COVID-19, but still hasn’t been prioritized for vaccination in Santa Cruz County, which has so far allowed anyone age 75 or older to get the shot.

At 72, Tubac resident Kathleen Vandervoet is in a similar position. She said she filled out the pre-registration form online last month, but still had questions about what would happen next.

In an email sent earlier this week to County Manager Jennifer St. John and District 3 Supervisor Bruce Bracker, Vandervoet said she pre-registered on Jan. 18 and then called the county to ask how soon she could expect to get a call and set a vaccination appointment. About two weeks, she was told.

Three weeks passed, so Vandervoet called again on Monday, Feb. 8. How long until the county would be ready to give her an appointment? “About two weeks,” was still the answer, she said.

Like Wilus, Vandervoet began to wonder if her name was really on the list. (Email address and phone number are required fields in the pre-registration portal, but the system doesn’t send a confirmation message after submission.)

“I never got a call, text or email so I don’t know if the county database has my registration or not,” she wrote in the email. “I’m hearing the same worry from everyone who is 65 to 74.”

Terrell said county staff aren’t instructed to give any estimates about individuals’ vaccination dates, and he wouldn’t either.

“I can’t guarantee you anything and I won’t even predict because of the lack of vaccines,” he said. “Until I know a better allocation over a consistent period of time, there’s no way I want to predict when any phase will start.”

Vandervoet praised the county for the work it’s done to vaccinate the area’s eldest residents, but said the system has come up short for folks in her age group. “People who are 75 and older are heartily complimentary about the county and Mariposa. Congratulations on that,” she wrote. “But people like me feel left in the dark.”

On Thursday, she told the NI, she got a call from MCHC at around noon offering her a vaccine, which she got that afternoon at 3 p.m. She hadn’t yet received a response to her email to Bracker and St. John.

Other option

Nogales resident Lupita Heredia, also 72, said on Thursday that she registered with the county more than a month ago – even before Vandervoet. But she wasn’t able to get any more information after calling them and the Mariposa Community Health Center several times.

Then, she heard from her sister and a friend that the vaccine was available at Walgreens.

Heredia called the local store and was directed to sign-up on the company’s website; she found slots on Friday, Feb. 12 for herself and her husband, who is 76.

“I had no word (about the county system), so this was my other option,” she said.

For Wilus, too, the struggle to find a vaccine ended this week – but not at the county-run vaccination site on Hohokam Drive. He got inoculated on Tuesday at the Rio Rico Pharmacy, which he’d previously contacted in search of available vaccines.

He felt ambivalent about the experience pre-registering and trying to confirm his place on the county’s list. Perhaps, he said, he just hadn’t managed to talk to the right person. But he wished someone had been able to give him a bit more information along the way.

“I was trying to be patient, but sometimes you’re just trying to figure out what’s going on,” he said.

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