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Cardella: The COVID Shot Lottery

We’ve got a new Pennsylvania Lottery. You won’t see it advertised on television. The talking heads on TV are too busy bubbling over at the million dollars some office clerk in York might win. They seem to be ignorant of this unofficial state lottery, the one that has much bigger stakes. This lottery is the result of the bungling State of Pennsylvania and the indifference of a big drug store chain. Win this “lottery” and you get your required COVID-19 shots. Lose it and … well, you’re on your own, baby.

This game of chance was created when the federal government left it to each state to figure out how to get its citizens vaccinated against COVID-19. Turns out the first people in the state eligible to get the vaccinations are the health care workers. Seniors would have to wait till the next phase. I was OK with that. If anyone loves nurses, it’s this old guy whose many hospital stays were made safer and more comfortable by them. I’m a ready witness to the compassion of nurses — male and female. Despite my unbounded self-absorption, nothing in this column is meant to argue against prioritizing the healthcare industry.

I’m totally willing to wait my turn. I’m an 82-year-old with a transplanted kidney from my wife. And I’m a cancer survivor. I have a wonderful quality of life largely because of my wife and the medical professionals at Jefferson Hospital in Philly. So — I follow the rules, wear the mask, socially distance, the whole nine yards. How could I complain? And then I found out last week that there were no rules. Only chaos. Luck. Like playing the lottery. Or waiting online to get the opportunity to buy tickets to see Streisand. The losers. The chumps were the ones who kept waiting for some orderly process to allow them to get vaccinated.

There were rumors you could get a COVID-19 shot at a Rite-Aid. Was that possible? Could it be that while my wife and I were waiting to become eligible, Rite-Aids all around us were giving shots to anyone regardless of eligibility? The short answer turned out to be “yes.” The longer answer was, folks like us who expected a minimum of organizational efficiency were dopes. Nice guys don’t finish last. Dopes sure do.

But wait. There’s more. People began talking about a “secret” website, preferably around midnight. Follow the instructions. And if you’re lucky, you’ll be given an appointment to get your first COVID vaccination. Doesn’t even matter if you belong in Category 1a. Really. Bonus: The site lets you set up your appointment for your second shot.

I eagerly tried to access the site, only to be told in so many words that I was a dollar short and a day late. None of the authorized Rite-Aid stores had any vaccine left. The last time I felt so empty was when I missed getting tickets for a James Taylor-Carole King concert.

This whole process unnerved me a bit. Unnerved? I was angry. I decided to check around. Find out more about this curious method of deciding who gets protected against COVID-19 and who does not. I confirmed with my doctor’s office that some of their patients had gotten their COVID through the “mystery” website. I was advised to do the same. That only added to my frustration and anger.

I called one of the Rite-Aids rumored to be giving the vaccinations.  The pharmacist I spoke to seemed embarrassed to confirm that his store had indeed been giving out the shots without confirming eligibility. He explained that the website in question belonged to the state. “The state portal,” he said, “was supposed to certify eligibility.” The portal had failed. The authorized Rite-Aid pharmacies gave out the shots anyway. No, he couldn’t identify the state website for me. Or wouldn’t. Besides, he didn’t have any vaccine at this time.

On a whim, I contacted my local CVS to ascertain whether it or any CVS stores in the area were giving the COVID shots. Turns out CVS hadn’t received the vaccine yet, but they did have a decent sale on BEN AND JERRY’s. “I haven’t received the vaccine myself,” the pharmacist mentioned almost sheepishly.

So here’s the skinny. In this country where we brag about our exceptionalism … where we worry incessantly that we might be slipping into some form of socialism … where we brag about something called OPERATION WARP SPEED … where our talking heads on TV worry that the big problem is folks refusing to get the shot … where these same TV folks keep reminding us to wear our masks, socially distance and support our local restaurants or (sometimes in the same newscast) warn us that such restaurants pose a risk … where some seniors in Florida wait overnight in line like some “Deadhead” fans who waited to see Jerry Garcia, there are a bunch of us jamming the “secret” website hoping to get a vaccination appointment at a Rite-Aid within 50 miles from our homes. You know what? They might as well play Sinatra singing LUCK BE A LADY as we wait online for our chance at a vaccination that could save our saggy-cheeked asses a few more years on this tiresome planet.

Oh. And today is Inauguration Day in this locked-down land of democracy where all we wish for now is to get through 2021 because we KNOW 2022 just has to be better.

Yeah. Right.

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