Vermonters face limited appointments and insurance mix-up with new COVID vaccines

masked man giving injection in arm
Jeff Lane, an emergency medical technician with 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 shots. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

The federal government authorized new COVID-19 boosters on Sept. 11, paving the way for millions of Americans to receive updated protection tailored to recent variants of the disease.

Two weeks later, the vaccine has slowly started to make its way to Vermont pharmacies and health care providers — but many Vermonters report that appointments are difficult to find.

Maryland resident Katherine McDonald, who lives part-time in Barre, told VTDigger that she checked pharmacies in Barre and Berlin and found no available appointments in October. She even went to the pharmacies in person to double-check that they wouldn’t be taking walk-ins, but was told they could only schedule slots online.

Finally, she got an appointment for this weekend in Morrisville, a long drive away for McDonald, 77.

“There is a lot of controversy among people about whether or not to get the vaccine for many different reasons,” he said. “If you have trouble getting an appointment, many people can’t hold on.”

A search of major pharmacy chain websites seems to support her experience. CVS, Hannaford, Walgreens and Kinney Drugs had no appointments listed in Central Vermont as of Tuesday, and the state had few appointments listed in places like the Northeast Kingdom.

Vermont isn’t the only place with limited COVID vaccine appointments available. National news outlets have reported limited supplies of doses at national pharmacy chains as Moderna and Pfizer begin shipping the latest boosters.

Vermont Department of Health spokeswoman Katie Warchut said the supply of COVID boosters is limited, but vaccines will become more widely available in the coming weeks.

“We appreciate the patience of Vermonters,” Warchut said in an email.

CVS Health spokesman Matthew Blanchett said the pharmacy chain was receiving doses on a gradual basis and advised Vermonters to continue checking their website for new appointments.

John Marraffa Jr., president of Kinney Drugs, said in a statement that the company has not experienced a “shortage” of COVID vaccine, but that it “plans to open appointments only when we have enough vaccine to care for those patients.” ” ,

The limited supply comes amid changes in how Covid vaccination campaigns are being handled at the state and federal level. Covid vaccines have now been commercialized, meaning the federal government is no longer playing an active role in supplying doses to states. Instead, each pharmacy or pharmacy chain is responsible for arranging its own shipments, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website.

Warchut said commercialization has caused various insurers across the country to have problems covering vaccinations for their members, with reports of insurance denials and delays. He said the federal government has approached insurance companies to help resolve these.

Health Commissioner Mark Levin told Vermont Edition on Tuesday that 2021 is the first year since the vaccine became widely available that the health department is not planning to host any mass vaccination clinics.

Some Vermonters have complained that the system for finding COVID vaccines is overly complicated. Burlington resident Kate Van Wagner said the website, which was created to help Americans find vaccines, is “useless.”

“[It]shows a bunch of availability, but when you click on the individual pharmacies, they don’t have any appointments for adults,” she said via email. She also couldn’t get an appointment for her 5-year-old child within 100 miles of Burlington.

She wrote that she was experiencing “déjà vu” at the time when young children were not yet eligible for any Covid vaccine.

“COVID is all around us,” he wrote. “We are supposed to have this extra layer of protection available, but functionally it is not available at all.”

Warchut said she couldn’t yet say how many Vermonters have been vaccinated with the latest booster. The health department plans to start providing the data in late October, once the numbers are high enough to avoid privacy concerns.

By April 2023, the last time the department published data, 35% of Vermonters ages 5 and older had received an updated COVID booster dose. This compares to 80% of Vermont’s total population who have completed the primary series of the COVID vaccine.

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