Everything you need to know about how to get a COVID-19 vaccine in Summit County

Interview and photos by H.L. Comeriato

On March 1, Summit County Public Health Commissioner Donna Skoda sat down with The Devil Strip to talk about Summit County’s new lottery system, how to find available vaccines and what to expect when you show up for your shot.

On March 1, Summit County Public Health started using a lottery system to schedule COVID-19 vaccinations. What is the lottery system and how do I sign up?

If you’ve registered with Summit County Public Health, you’ll have an opportunity to be randomly chosen to schedule a vaccination appointment. 

“We send you an email or call you, and then we schedule you an appointment if you haven’t already had one,” Skoda says.

SCPH asks a series of demographic questions to make sure you’re eligible to receive a vaccine, and provides instructions to help you schedule your vaccination appointment.

To register for a COVID-19 vaccine with Summit County Public Health, click here.

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Why did SCPH switch to a lottery system?

Before putting the lottery system in place, SCPH sent email alerts to all 120,000 people registered in their system every time a vaccine dose became available. Skoda says those mass emails caused confusion among Summit County residents hoping to find available doses.

“It just created chaos and madness, particularly because of the age group we were dealing with. Some people weren’t sure [how to use their computers], and some had difficulty understanding the phone lines and how to call in. 

We would get 13,000 hits, and in four minutes [all the] appointments would be gone and everything would be shut down. It was just madness,” Skoda says. “The part I feel worst about is that some people didn’t understand [the loading screen], and thought they had appointments. I felt bad they were so confused and mixed up, so we said ‘We cannot continue to release 120,000 emails at one time.’”

That’s when SCPH switched to the lottery — a randomly generated pick from everyone already registered in the system.

“What we’ve been doing, slowly, is releasing 1,000 vaccine doses, and then another 1,000, and then 1,200,” Skoda says. “So it’s far more organized and not as chaotic and confusing for people.”

Under the lottery system, could someone who is not eligible receive a vaccine before someone who is eligible? 

No. The lottery system is designed to release vaccine doses in smaller increments and to help minimize chaos and confusion, Skoda says.

If you’re given the option to schedule a vaccination appointment through the lottery, you’ll still have to meet state eligibility requirements to actually receive a vaccine. Only people who are eligible to receive a vaccine will receive one.

What should I expect when I show up for my vaccine appointment?

“All of our clinics are drive-thru, so come close to your appointment time. If you come early, that’s how we get traffic jams,” Skoda says.

When you arrive, you’ll take your place in line. Then a SCPH employee will check your ID and send you to the back of the building, where SCPH operates a clinic. The vaccinator will come out and review your medical history with you, which you already provided when you registered with SCPH. 

Once you’re vaccinated, you’ll be required to wait 15 minutes before leaving SCPH. A staff member makes rounds in the parking lot, checking for allergic reactions. If you’ve had a prior reaction, you’ll be required to wait 30 minutes before leaving.

What should I do if I don’t have a computer or smartphone?

“If you cannot get registered online, call our help line at (330) 926-5795.

“Tell the person who answers the phone that you’d like to be added to Summit County Public Health’s vaccine registry. We’ll get you registered and if you’re chosen in the lottery, we’ll call you at the phone number you give us.”

If you’ve been chosen via the lottery, but aren’t sure how to schedule an appointment online, SCPH can help get you scheduled over the phone.

What should I do if I don’t have a car? Can I walk up to my appointment?

Yes, you can walk up to your vaccination appointment. 

“We’ve had some folks arrive on the SCAT bus,” Skoda says. “We usually try to take those folks into the clinic so they can actually sit in an exam room and get a vaccine.

“We were a little caught off guard by the SCAT busses at first. We had folks literally in our hallways getting vaccinated. But now we’re kind of refined the process and we can get you back to the clinic,” she says.

Can I schedule my first and second doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines at the same time?

Some drugstores, pharmacies or other providers let you schedule appointments for both your first and second doses of the vaccine. Summit County Public Health does not.

“We schedule your first dose, and then when you come in for your first dose, we’ll schedule you for your second dose while you’re here,” Skoda says.

If I have a vaccination appointment already, what do I need to bring with me?

“You have to have an ID that says who you are. It can be a state ID. It can be a utility bill that proces you’re a Summit County resident,” Skoda says.

If you are eligible to be vaccinated because you meet the age requirement, you’ll be required to prove your birth date.

Under Phase 1C, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine has lengthened the list of qualifying medical conditions. Summit County residents who work in funeral services, law enforcement, corrections or child care will be eligible to receive a vaccine beginning March 4.

If you’re part of a specialized group like teachers or first responders, Skoda says bringing a work ID to your vaccination appointment will prove you belong to a specialized group. If you don’t have an ID specific to your occupation, you can also bring a letter from your employer stating that you’re part of a special group.

“Then, there’s the group of individuals that have special health conditions,” Skoda says. “People who are eligible because they have a medical condition can be under the age of 65, but you must be older than 16 to receive the Pfizer vaccine and older than 18 to receive the Moderna vaccine. If you’re between those ages, you have to sign a form that says you have one of those conditions.”

Some of those qualifying conditions are obscure, Skoda says, but they include more common conditions as well, like sickle cell anemia, down syndrome, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, severe heart defects and severe type 1 diabetes.

For a full list of qualifying medical conditions under the Ohio Department of Health’s COVID-19 Vaccination Program, click here.

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How do I schedule an appointment through a health center or pharmacy?

Summit County Public Health has a list of hospitals, health centers and pharmacies where you may be able to make an appointment for a vaccination on their website.

Skoda recommends looking through the list and contacting individual locations directly to ask about vaccine availability. SCPH’s lottery system is only for appointments at the public health department and does not include appointments at pharmacies. 

To see a complete list of participating locations across Summit County, click here. To search for participating locations in other Ohio counties, click here to access the Ohio Department of Health’s searchable vaccine provider database.

How many doses of the vaccine does Summit County Public Health have right now? How do you know when you’ll receive more?

“Right now we have about 5,000 vaccine doses on hand, but a lot of those are designated second doses,” Skoda says.

“We find out we’re getting more, it arrives, and then we start scheduling appointments,” Skoda says. “We don’t have the Johnson & Johnson vaccine yet, but we’ve been notified that Ohio’s health departments are [each] going to receive between 100 and 300 doses.”

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires only one dose, not two.

There’s a lot of talk about COVID-19 vaccinations being less accessible among marginalized communities. In particular, North Hill’s Nepali and Bhutanese communities have been hit hard by COVID-19, and might face some serious barriers to vaccination. Does SCPH have a plan to make sure vaccines are distributed equitably?

Skoda says SCPH has worked closely with local faith leaders and organizations like the NAACP, Project Ujima, the WOMB, House of the Lord, Arlington Church of God and United Way’s 2-1-1 program to help get Summit County’s most vulnerable residents vaccinated.

“We’ve been able to save 30% of our vaccines for priority scheduling. We hold those back, and then those community organizations send us lists of people who are struggling and we get them registered,” Skoda says. “That’s been working really well.” 

“At one of our first drive-thru clinics, about 8% of people vaccinated minorities,” says Skoda. “After we started priority scheduling, we got it up to 32%.”

Does it matter which vaccine I receive?

“All three vaccines are good vaccines,” says Skoda. “I would not get too caught up on which is more effective than the other. They’re all excellent vaccines. To be quite honest with you, take whatever you can get.

“In clinical trials, all three vaccines protected people against severe disease — and that’s what we want. We do not want people getting really sick and needing hospitalization. 

“So take whichever one you can get. Take it as quickly as you can get it. Let’s build some immunity and get this behind us.”

H.L. Comeriato covers public health at The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach them at HL@thedevilstrip.com.