With COVID-19 vaccine appointments scarce in Delaware, residents take shots wherever they can find them

Brandon Holveck
Delaware News Journal

When Delaware made everyone 50 and older eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine last week, Fiona Shults went right to her computer.

She didn't want to repeat the three weeks she previously spent looking for an appointment for her husband, who qualified in the 65 and older stage. Shults found the process of entering his information on each provider's website and sifting for openings "mentally taxing."

After striking out on an appointment near her New Castle home, Shults expanded her search on the Walgreens website. Eventually, she found an opening two hours away in Delmar. 

She decided to take it, figuring the long Friday drive listening to '70s and '80s jams on SiriusXM would beat a longer online search.

"I said, 'I'll just take whatever.' I feel very lucky that we can get them," Shults said.

Fiona Shults of New Castle receives her first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a Walgreens in Delmar Friday, March 19.

RELATED:One person's long and frustrating road to getting vaccinated in Delaware

Delawareans like Shults have been making drives up and down the state to secure a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Since eligibility expanded on March 17, pharmacy appointments in New Castle County have been difficult to find but slots have been more available in Kent and Sussex counties.

State officials expected the surge in demand and are aware some people are taking trips far from home to get vaccinated. For several weeks, they've advocated for taking the first vaccination opportunity one is offered.

"We will continue to evaluate the throughput of all the pharmacies – we do that on a regular basis – and make any modifications as may be necessary to better meet supply with demand," Gov. John Carney said Tuesday.

HOW TO SIGN UP: Am I eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine in Delaware? If so, how do I get it?

Sussex County, where vaccine supply appears most abundant, has the highest percentage of its population fully vaccinated of Delaware's counties. In Sussex County, 22% of people 18 and older are fully vaccinated, according to state data. That figure is 15% in New Castle and Kent counties.

AJ Schall, director of Delaware Emergency Management Agency, said one reason supply and demand may appear out of sync is vaccines can't be shipped in quantities lower than around 100 doses. The state has also received more Pfizer vaccines in recent weeks, which can only be sent to facilities with ultra-cold storage capabilities. 

"If you're putting it in some places that might not be densely populated there could be a little bit smaller curve in the supply and demand," Schall said. "We do look at it. We make sure the throughput is maximized, as well as trying to be fair across the state."

Spent vials of the Pfizer vaccine are lined up during a COVID-19 vaccine event for educators in a former grocery store at Naamans and Foulk Roads Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021.

Eileen Houghton, a 63-year-old from Brandywine Hundred, found an appointment at a pharmacy in Ellendale after days of searching "every couple hours." She decided not to take the appointment.

"I probably will eventually just get it and go where I need to go because I know it's important to get protected," Houghton said. "But at the same time, I think it's so inconvenient and I think about how many people are going through the same thing."

"What about the people who don’t have a car and don’t have a way to go where they need to go? That’s not fair to them."

Pharmacists in Sussex County said they've seen patients from all over the state including Wilmington, Newark and Dover. They are fine vaccinating whomever books with them as long as they can get out all of their doses.

The scramble for vaccine appointments, in which residents are instructed to join multiple waiting lists, has created an issue for pharmacies.

People sometimes book a distant appointment only to find one closer soon after. If they don't cancel their original appointment, providers are left with unused doses that could expire.

"Should I just give it to the next person that can get in? Should I waste it?" asked Amakoe Ajavon, a pharmacist at Careplus Pharmacy in Seaford. "We try to see who we can give it to."

At Camden Pharmacy, vaccination appointments are scheduled every 10 minutes from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day, in addition to a walk-up window for people 65 and older from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Pharmacist Leena Amin maintains a shortlist of around 10 people in the area that she can call on short notice to get vaccinated if there are leftover doses.

DATA: A closer look at who’s getting vaccinated in Delaware — and who’s not

"I’m getting a lot of people from New Castle County coming down, and everybody is saying it's very hard to get a vaccination in that area," Amin said. "It really doesn’t matter to us. We just want to vaccinate anyone in the eligibility group as fast as we can. The list is handy most days."

Shults made a second appointment for a Friday three weeks from now after she received her first dose at the Delmar pharmacy. She took off work the Saturday and Sunday after so she can monitor for symptoms.

Shults said she might look for a closer appointment as the date nears, but she'll likely make the trek again.

"Listening to music is mentally better than going on the computer," Shults said. "So worth it."

Contact Brandon Holveck at bholveck@delawareonline.com. Follow him on Twitter @holveck_brandon.