How I got the coronavirus vaccine in Pennsylvania | Opinion

(Image via SingleParentAndStrong.com)

By Therese Ummerlik

Since March 2020, the world has waited for a vaccine or two that would curb or halt the coronavirus menace that has consumed so many lives, ravaged so many bodies and devastated so many families and communities.

Now that three vaccines are being produced, everyone is waiting anxiously for how they will be distributed in their states. Meanwhile, remote working and remote learning have become the norm. Millions have lost their jobs and are struggling to make ends meet.

Like so many Americans, I wanted to learn what phase of the rollout I fit into. In Pennsylvania, we have quite a few phases.

On March 7, I took a chance, answered some questions and discovered that my turn had come up!

Dear readers, this column describes the process I experienced to receive the vaccine. I realize many people will not be vaccinated, but for those who are curious about the enrollment process, the following information should offer some practical help and hopefully ease some of your concerns.

How I qualified for the vaccine

Qualifying for the COVID-19 vaccine in Pennsylvania involved answering a series of questions to determine the phase appropriate for me based on my age, employment, caregiving responsibilities and health. In addition, a separate COVID Immunization Questionnaire must be completed, but how it impacts the approval process is unknown to me and I could not find any specific information on it to share with you, dear reader.

Be that as it may, for this column, I am focusing on the questions used to determine whether I am authorized to receive the vaccine, an eligibility quiz if you will.

My journey began with a visit to the Pennsylvania government website and my arrival at this webpage:

On the right side is the list of steps you must go through to obtain a vaccination. I clicked on the first one:

I zipped down to this section of the webpage where I could choose between two qualifying processes based on where I lived:

Because I live outside of Philadelphia, which has its own vaccine distribution strategy, I selected the option on the left:

Once I clicked on that option, I was taken to this webpage where I began the eligibility quiz with its question asking for my county of residence:

The next question asking for my date of birth included information about the vaccines:

The third question focused on my living status:

The fourth one focused on work in the health care industry with definitions of those roles and the health care setting:

The fifth question addressed working with people who are disabled or elderly:

The sixth question inquiring about my actual job or profession is longer than this image indicates:

The seventh one about high-risk conditions is also more extensive than this image suggests:

If you qualify, this page pops up and directs you to the second step:

How I selected a vaccination date, time and location

When I was deemed eligible, I was taken to the next step to select a vaccination provider:

A map was displayed where a provider can be chosen based on a person’s town, city and ZIP code:

I selected York Hospital in York, PA, which is part of WellSpan Health, a large health care organization responsible for distributing the vaccine in Pennsylvania. This organization offers vaccinations at several of its member hospitals and medical facilities, but I had to be enrolled with WellSpan Health before I could schedule my appointment:

Because I had received care from doctors in this organization and my personal information was recorded with WellSpan Health, I merely had to log in to advance to the next step in registering for my vaccine.

Unfortunately, my mother had never been seen by a doctor associated with WellSpan Health and she needed to enroll in order to be administered the vaccine at the WellSpan Health location where she had made her appointment. She remarked that creating the account took her about 20 to 30 minutes. When she was reviewing the available locations, the small font size and its light color made the information difficult to read.

The locations are arranged in boxes across and down the screen. Each box contains the name, address, phone number and website of a provider with the ones closest to your home address at the top and those furthest away at the bottom.

I clicked on the first box in the top row to select all locations, so I could consider appointment times and dates at several facilities. Because I have access to a vehicle and am not anxious or fearful about highway driving, I was willing to go anywhere. I would recommend that you select the all locations option if you have a vehicle or can use some sort of public or private transportation.

I managed to snag a date and time for the next day, March 8 by keeping my options open!

WellSpan Health is not the only vaccination provider. Other approved locations include grocery stores and pharmacies as well as those associated with Pinnacle Health, but I restricted my choices to facilities associated with WellSpan Health. It was a personal decision. My experience with this organization has always been positive and I trusted that it would inform me of any changes in my status and assist me with finding another time and place if need be.

What the eCheck-In involved

After I selected the time and place for my vaccination, it was recommended that I complete the eCheck-in before arriving at the hospital for my shot. This recommendation is a bit misleading; I was told in a follow-up email that I had to complete this check-in in advance.

This process involved answering a few questions and providing a photo of the back and front of my health insurance card. I used the camera on my laptop to photograph my card, but a cellphone camera is just as effective.

When I completed the eCheck-In, I received a confirmation statement with my appointment information that I printed and brought with me the next day. It mentions that you should go inside the facility five minutes before your appointment to be checked in, but not any earlier. Doing so prevents people from congregating in the waiting area — and it makes the vaccination process go quickly and smoothly.

Shortly after registering, I received the follow-up email I just mentioned with the subject line: “Steps to take before your upcoming appointment.”

There, it required the eCheck-in be completed in advance and provided additional information, including:

“Please do not bring others, including children, with you to your appointment.”

“Plan to remain onsite for a 15-30 minute observation period following your vaccination.”

“Directions and parking information for hospital-based COVID-19 vaccination sites can be found here.”

The link provides a lengthy list of locations with a note at the top: “Appointments are REQUIRED. Walk-ins at these vaccination sites are not permitted.” Really? As though we needed to be reminded. Who knows? Maybe, at one point, this note won’t be relevant. Vaccines for everyone!

What I experienced before I got my vaccine

The next day I was nervous. I had no idea how this process would unfold and what problems I may encounter. I really couldn’t imagine that getting my shot would be simple.

Nothing is ever truly simple, right?

Before I left, I made sure I had my driver’s license and health insurance card as well as my confirmation statement.

After a nearly 30-minute drive, I arrived at the hospital and followed the clearly posted signs to the building where the shots were being administered. I found a parking space easily in the garage across from the building — and it was free.

Walking to the door, I noticed — with tremendous relief — that everyone entering and exiting the building was masked up. Considering how politicized masks have become in the United States, I thought it was worth noting.

Upon entering, a nurse took my temperature and another checked me in. My name was on a list. My name was on the list! I had not been bumped off or lost in the shuffle of registrations!

The nurses, who were so welcoming, directed me into a room and told me to stand on a designated space until a nurse became available to administer the vaccine. At least five nurses were in the room, busy assisting people of all ages and races.

The nurse I ended up going to was named Rose and she was wonderful! I took my seat at her smallish table and she assured me that I shouldn’t worry or be nervous because I was in good hands. She asked for my driver’s license and insurance card, verified some personal information and inquired as to any allergies I had to medications.

I passed with flying colors and then I was ready!

What vaccine I received

Rose wiped my left arm with an alcohol wipe and then stuck me with the needle after a gentle warning that it may sting a bit when the needle pierced my skin.

I just received my first COVID-19 vaccine! One down and one to go!

I was injected with the Pfizer-BionNTech vaccine, my first of two doses given three weeks apart.

The fact sheet I received about this vaccine included the following:

Before you are given the shot, you should mention if you have any of these medical conditions or plans, including whether you “have any allergies, have a fever, have a bleeding disorder or are on a blood thinner, are immunocompromised [sic] or are on a medicine that affects your immune system, are pregnant or plan to become pregnant, are breastfeeding, or have received another COVID-19 vaccine.”

Side effects from this vaccine include “injection site pain, tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills, joint pain, fever, injection site swelling, injection site redness, nausea, feeling unwell, and swollen lymph nodes [lymphadenopathy].”

Allergic reactions include “difficulty breathing, swelling of your face and throat, a fast heartbeat, a bad rash all over the body, dizziness and weakness.”

Despite my reactions to various medications over the years, I decided to receive the shot; so far, three days later, my only side effect — and it’s a common one — is pain at the injection site, which has been steadily disappearing.

Rose filled out the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s official vaccination card with the date of my first dose and the date of my second one. This card will eventually be made a tad smaller and laminated for me to carry with my other identification. Below is a sample of the card:

What signs of hope surrounded me

After my shot, I was ushered into a theater where I took a seat for 15 minutes so the nurses could observe me for any severe, immediate allergic reactions, such as anaphylaxis. Some people have to stay for 30 minutes because of their particular health conditions.

People were seated in the theater to be observed for any immediate reactions from the COVID-19 vaccine.

Everyone was socially distanced as they watched the digital clock on the screen in the front of the theater. I was told the time to look for and if I felt fine, I could leave.

The room was quiet much like before a church service begins. The quiet made the atmosphere seem oddly solemn, but my heart was rejoicing as I wrote why I was getting a “Shot of Hope.” Below is my message:

The walls of the theater and the small hall leading to it were being wallpapered with these signs as people voluntarily shared their motivation and appreciation for being vaccinated. The reasons ranged from a love of family to a coming-out party. Below are some of their words of hope:

This outpouring of possibilities, longings and optimism made me aware of the empowerment individuals were experiencing by simply choosing to be vaccinated.

For a moment, I had hope for my community, locally and globally.

That Monday evening, Rose informed me that hundreds of people were being vaccinated daily at York Hospital.

Pennsylvania recently expanded the eligibility requirements in the initial phase of its vaccination rollout, according to a news report.

That being the case, Pennsylvania residents should visit — or revisit — the state government’s website to determine where they rank or if their position in the rollout has changed.

For people living in other states, I would strongly encourage you to visit your respective government websites to discover if you qualify or to sign up for alerts when appointments are available. Perhaps, eligibility requirements have changed in your state too!

With every vaccination, we are closer to having our lives back and we can save lives as well. We have the power to stop the deaths, the suffering and the despair.

Just give it a shot!

A veteran Pennsylvania journalist, Therese Ummerlik blogs at SingleParentAndStrong.com, where this column first appeared