April 21, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

How to get your first and second COVID-19 vaccine doses in Orange County

Janet Genow got her vaccine on Monday after two weeks of anxiety, technical difficulties and what seemed like dead ends.

There was an incorrect message about her ineligibility. “I’m 78,” she remembers thinking. “I kept telling my computer, ‘I’m eligible.’”

As she saw her friends get appointments, her daughter took to social media to crowdsource advice. They were advised by the Orange County Health Care Agency to contact Curapatient, the company behind the app. Someone eventually confirmed she was registered but gave no other information.

By the time Genow received instructions akin to “don’t call us, we’ll call you,” she had little faith left in the system.

But then on Sunday, she got an email to make an appointment for the following day. When she arrived at the Disneyland vaccination distribution center about half an hour early, the process was “super smooth,” she said.

She was done before the time of her appointment. Others who have been vaccinated this week at both Disneyland and Soka University — the county’s second large vaccine distribution location, which opened Jan. 23 — also report a smooth process and short wait times.

“But the process of getting the appointment was hell,” Genow said.

Here’s what you need to know as you navigate the process in Orange County. We also have information about the process in Los Angeles County. This is the most up-to-date and complete information that we have right now, but it may change.

Where things stand

Orange County was the first county in Southern California to start vaccinating people 65 and older on Jan. 13, the day Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that policy change.

Many will be vaccinated directly through employers or assisted living homes. About 80% of the vaccines available for Orange County have gone to traditional healthcare providers, including hospitals, pharmacies and community health centers, according to Jessica Good, the OC Health Care Agency’s public information manager. The remaining 20% are administered by the County of Orange through Othena.

Residents and those who work in the county are eligible. The county is in Phase 1A — which includes critical and healthcare workers, residents of long-term care facilities and people 65 and older.

There have been bugs and subsequent improvements. In the beginning, vaccine seekers had to rely on luck to access the website when the county happened to open up new appointments. Now a waiting list feature allows people to make the appointment when it’s their turn.

Early on, seniors waited in lines outdoors for hours, even when they had an appointment. Now wait times are shorter.

“The vaccine process at both sites generally takes between 45 to 60 minutes, which includes a 15-minute observation period,” Good said.

The county hopes to eventually open five sites and serve up to 8,000 people daily. Their goal is to vaccinate all county residents who want to be vaccinated by July 4, 2021.

But it’s still hard for many residents, especially those in underserved communities, those who lack of access to technology, and those with language barriers.

Dr. Mai-Phuong Nguyen, who cares for elderly patients in Orange County, spends her limited free time trying to help seniors sign up for Othena. Many don’t have email addresses, which are required to sign up.

She also can’t imagine some of her frailer patients over 80 being able to stand in a line for very long.

“We are currently exploring the drive-through model,” Good said. “Our ability to open additional super PODs [large distribution sites] will depend on the quantity of vaccines that we receive from the state. The county continues to seek additional allotments.”

OC Health Care Agency director Dr. Clayton Chau recently spoke of plans to make versions of Othena in Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese and to set up public libraries to assist people who may not have smartphones or internet access.

In the meantime, if you can’t get a vaccine through your employer, nursing home or primary care physician, here’s how to get your vaccine through the county.

Sign up for an Othena account

Go to Othena.com or download the Othena app.

You’ll be prompted to fill out a COVID-19 vaccination pre-screening questionnaire, where you certify that you live or work in Orange County, whether you’re over 65 or work in an industry that makes you eligible for the vaccine.

If you qualify and there are appointments available, you will be able to make an appointment. But more likely, you’ll be asked to register (with a unique email address, password, name, date of birth, sex at birth, race, ethnicity, occupation and employer) and be put in a digital waiting room.

How the digital waiting room works

Appointments are prioritized based on age, time of registration and available vaccine supply.

You should get an email when it’s your turn to make an appointment, but there are reports that emails go to spam folders or never show up. Until that technical issue is fixed, it’s best to be diligent about checking your Othena account regularly.

Once it’s your turn, you have a four-hour window to make an appointment. If you don’t make an appointment within four hours, Othena will open the slot to someone else, the county said. If you miss three windows, you’ll be removed from the queue entirely.

If you need to cancel an appointment, you can do so through Othena.

What’s the difference between the Disneyland and Soka University sites?

Once you have an appointment, you can choose a time and a location.

Currently, Disneyland administers the Moderna vaccine, while Soka administers the Pfizer vaccine. The Disneyland site is in an outdoor parking lot, specifically the park’s Toy Story parking lot at the southeast corner of Katella Avenue and Harbor Boulevard.

Soka’s is inside a gymnasium. The county is asking those going to Soka not to arrive more than 30 minute early, to follow all signage and traffic patterns and to avoid parking on residential streets or in nearby school lots, Good said.

In general, there isn’t a benefit to going over half an hour early, because you line up by appointment time.

What to bring to your appointment

Individuals must have a photo ID with proof of Orange County residency or Orange County employment, as well as documentation of Phase 1A eligibility, such as one of the following:

  • Professional license.
  • Employee badge with name.
  • Signed letter from employer on facility letterhead.
  • Pay stub with printed name.

Those who booked the appointment through the app can show the code that can be scanned on-site. Others can be confirmed through their name, birthday and appointment ID number.

Check the weather report, and dress accordingly if you’re going to Disneyland. Appointments have been canceled and rescheduled due to weather.

“For those for whom long periods of standing while waiting in line might pose a challenge, please know that you’re welcome to bring a compact folding chair,” said Good. “An umbrella is always a good idea to protect against rain or to offer shade, as is a bottle of water.”

Wear a mask too.

How do you get your second dose?

Good said that anyone who received a first dose through the Othena system will receive an appointment within the appropriate second-dose timeframe.

The second dose for Pfizer should be administered after 21 days, while the second dose for Moderna should be scheduled after 28 days.

“Othena tracks the data and vaccine type of your first dose to schedule your next appointment and ensure you receive the proper second dose,” Good said. “Your second dose will automatically be assigned following your first dose — you may choose to cancel or reschedule.”

She recommends regularly monitoring and refreshing your email or your Othena account for appointment updates.

“The community should seek their second dose from the same system that provided their first,” she said, whether it was Othena or through their employer or healthcare system.

What about health equity?

The county hosts pop-up mobile clinics for vulnerable seniors in critically underserved communities. These often include populations that don’t speak English or are undocumented.

Nguyen took her father to a vaccine drive set up in Little Saigon for the Vietnamese American community, many of whom are monolingual and depend on canes, walkers, wheelchairs and their caretakers.

There have been others set up by groups like Latino Health Access, based in Santa Ana.

“This outreach effort isn’t intended for the general public, who typically have resources that many communities of color and lower-income do not have available to them,” Good said. “We are working in collaboration with community partners to support these grassroots efforts to reach seniors close to home and offer more vaccination options for this vulnerable population.”

Still confused?

More information is available at the Orange County Health Care Agency website, including a vaccination distribution plan chart that outlines eligibility so you can see when you might be able to get vaccinated.

For individual questions, call the county’s COVID-19 hotline: (714) 834-2000. Live operators are available Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. They can’t make appointments, but they can help troubleshoot.

Email the Orange County Health Care Agency’s Immunization Assistance Program (IAP): IAP@ochca.com.

Follow the Orange County Health Care Agency @ochealth on Twitter or Facebook for daily updates.