Amid California’s chaotic vaccine rollout, rumors started swirling Monday that Bay Area vaccination centers had extra doses that needed to be used quickly, so anyone — not just health care workers — could get vaccinated in Alameda or Santa Clara counties with a specific registration link. Some essential workers, including those in the restaurant industry, sent each other the same links believing their time had come early.
To make a vaccine appointment, normally individuals would have to sign an attestation under penalty of perjury that they meet the criteria, such as being a medical worker. After signing, they’d be directed to book an appointment on Calvax.org, a state website. The links going around this week allowed people to skip the attestation.
More than 100 people showed up over a few days this week to vaccination sites in Santa Clara County despite not qualifying for a vaccine, according to county counsel James Williams. Those who didn’t qualify were turned away.
Many more people went to sites in Alameda County, arriving to see big signs posted saying doses were reserved for health workers. Public health officials said they don’t know the origin of the links that allowed people to dodge screening questions. They urged anyone who signed up for an appointment through the links to cancel so the time slot can go to a health worker.
Sandy Morse, who was turned away from her appointment Tuesday, said she felt bad about taking a slot that should have gone to someone else. It was challenging for her and her husband, Bob, to get them at all: They kept hitting refresh on the website and saw no availability. Eventually, her daughter-in-law snagged two slots for the Morses, who are both over 75. They double masked, drove from Redwood City to Castro Valley and got in line, before a worker told them the Calvax website should have noted that only health workers should register, Sandy said.
In that moment, Bob said he felt like he understood why California’s vaccine rollout is moving so slowly compared to other states — and he wanted to know how this mix-up was allowed to happen.
“The method of administering the vaccines is so disjointed and so out of whack with reality and also a deep, dark secret,” he said.
While Santa Clara County executive Jeffrey Smith does not believe the Calvax system has been hacked, he said during Tuesday’s supervisors meeting that someone “got access to Calvax inappropriately.”
On Wednesday, a new line appeared at the top of the Calvax registration page stating vaccines are only available for those in the state’s phase 1A, which only includes health care workers and long-term care residents. (Some counties are vaccinating the elderly in the general population but through separate web sites.)
It’s unclear exactly how many people have registered for vaccinations this way. A spokesperson with the California Department of Public Health said the state doesn’t track the eligibility of people who sign up for vaccine appointments.
The Morses feared the vaccines they signed up to take got thrown out, but Neetu Balram of the Alameda County Public Health Department said no vaccines are wasted.
Janet Levy, general manager at Oakland restaurant Hopscotch, was surprised when she got an email from her boss Monday saying food workers could get vaccines. But she didn’t argue — she clicked the link and took the first available slot for noon Tuesday. Upon arrival, she was disheartened to see a sign outside, saying “health care providers only.”
“I’m an essential worker and my exposure is quite high to a lot of people,” she said. “I’m still working with the public and many people who refuse to wear masks.”
To Levy, the error shows how the state needs more support for adequately distributing vaccines. Others might not be so forgiving. Jenny Schwarz, co-owner of Hopscotch as well as Nido’s Backyard in Oakland, said the link “went viral” among Bay Area restaurant workers.
“We’ve gone from working in fine dining to working in fast food. It’s slow and it’s sad and it’s depressing,” she said. “I haven’t been able to give (my staff) good news for so long, so when I gave them this, they were so excited.”
Having to cancel their appointments is demoralizing, said Schwarz. She’s concerned restaurant workers who were already skeptical about the vaccine will now be even less inclined to sign up when the time comes.
“Thinking they can sign up and then feeling like it’s fraudulent, it’ll make them trust less next time,” she said.
The inconvenience for people is unfortunate, said Dr. George Rutherford, an infectious disease expert with UCSF, but he’s not surprised there are still kinks in the rollout.
“Hopefully by this time next week, this will all be resolved,” he said.