Walgreens and Gov. J.B. Pritzker have both acknowledged that the pharmacy chain is experiencing problems with its COVID-19 vaccine sign-up process, as the company's website continues to show no availability or will not allow patients to book available first-dose appointments, frustrating eligible Illinois residents seeking to get their shots.
"In this fluid situation during which vaccine inventory remains limited, our aim is to ensure eligible patients are able to receive vaccinations as soon as possible," a Walgreens spokesman said in a statement on Thursday. "We are continuing to enhance our vaccine scheduler with a great sense of urgency and are committed to providing the most convenient solution for our customers."
"We have dedicated teams actively working through scheduler issues to ensure an easy, secure and transparent experience for all eligible individuals scheduling their vaccinations according to vaccine availability," the statement continued.
In several attempts to book an appointment over the past week, at varying times each day and on multiple devices, the Walgreens site has shown two responses: either no available appointments anywhere in the state, or if appointments are shown, a subsequent page in the registration process says the first-dose appointment cannot be booked because there are no second-dose appointments available.
Jim Purky, of Lake Forest, is 68 years old and said he checked Walgreens' website between six and eight times a day, every single day for the last several weeks and saw the same issue: either no appointments, or the site wouldn't allow him to book the first without a second.
"A lot of times, you'd get nothing at all and other times you'd get a little green box and you get your hopes up and then you couldn't get the second dose so they wouldn't let you in at all," Purky said.
"There just seems to be no transparency as to what's going on," he continued. "What was frustrating about Walgreens is it gets your hopes up and you think, 'Finally, I'm going to be able to get a vaccine' and you get to the next step and you can't. It can get depressing."
Purky said he turned to the Facebook group "Chicago Vaccine Hunters" for insight. Countless posts and comments in the group, which has nearly 50,000 members and sees hundreds of posts a day, feature questions or complaints about the Walgreens website, including the issue of second-dose availability impacting first-dose appointments.
When asked to explain the issues with the scheduler, what is being done to fix them and a timeline for when they might be resolved, Walgreens said the effort "continues to rapidly evolve with fluxing vaccine inventories, varying eligibility guidelines, and continued demand that outweighs inventory."
"Customers may experience temporary issues with scheduling their vaccine. We are working to resolve issues as quickly as possible," the company said, saying that it was resolving issues "often times within as little as an hour," though it did not offer any further details or evidence to that claim.
Representatives for the company also did not immediately provide information on how customers may be able to get any scheduling problems resolved.
"We apologize for the inconvenience as we work to vaccinate our most vulnerable populations as quickly as possible," Walgreens said.
Pritzker acknowledged Friday that Walgreens was facing "technical difficulties" and said his office was communicating with the company regularly.
"To the extent Walgreens is having trouble with with their website, I know that my team is always encouraging them to make it easier, faster, but the truth is that there are technical difficulties that arise. Walgreens doesn't want them either," Pritzker said during a news conference. "I don't know when that will be overcome by Walgreens, but I know that they're trying very hard to make sure that happens."
Pritzker said his team was "talking to Walgreens almost every day" because the company is partially responsible for vaccinations in the state's long-term care facilities and is also part of the Federal Retail Partnership Program. Through that nationwide public-private partnership, Walgreens' website says it receives 16,690 doses of vaccine in Chicago and 61,220 for the rest of Illinois each week from the federal government, on top of what's already separately allocated to Walgreens under the city and state's supply.
Neither Pritzker's office, the Illinois Department of Public Health, nor Walgreens responded to multiple requests for information on how many of the state's allotted doses outside of the FRPP go to Walgreens. But with 517 Walgreens administering vaccinations across the state, per the IDPH website, the company has far and away the most locations of all vaccine providers in Illinois, with Jewel-Osco ranking second at 143 locations.
Illinois is currently in Phase 1B Plus of its vaccine rollout, expanding eligibility last week to include people with certain high-risk medical conditions and comorbidities, though some jurisdictions, including Chicago and several of the surrounding counties, said they would remain in the more strict Phase 1B due to low supply.
The first iteration of Phase 1B includes all residents age 65 and older as well as "frontline essential workers" like first responders, teachers and school staff, childcare workers, grocery store employees, postal service workers and more, in addition to the health care workers plus long-term care facility staff and residents eligible under Phase 1A.
Officials have repeatedly asked for patience with the vaccine rollout as the state battles low supply. Pritzker said on multiple occasions this week that the White House has told his administration that Illinois can expect to see an average of at least 100,000 doses per day by mid-March and President Joe Biden said Tuesday that the U.S. would have enough doses of the vaccine for all adults by the end of May.
Still, some of those eligible now and seeking appointments have found only frustration. Comments in the "Chicago Vaccine Hunters" Facebook group call the Walgreens process in particular "such a joke," "horrible to deal with" and "a nightmare."
"Through that all, Walgreens never acknowledged or said they had a glitch," Purky said. "It would have been really helpful if Walgreens had acknowledged or communicated that they were having a problem and were trying to fix it. When you get an answer like that… at least they're telling you and you feel like they're working on it for you."
"After awhile you just feel kind of hopeless," Purky said. After weeks of trying, he said he was finally able to sign up for an appointment at the new mass vaccination site at the United Center, opening next week. A special registration process for Illinois residents over the age of 65 began Thursday and runs through Sunday, at which point any leftover appointments will be opened to anyone in the state who qualifies under Phase 1B Plus.
For Purky, he said the relief of finally getting his appointment is "like night and day" from the frustration he felt for weeks.