Rebecca Smith opened three computers as she tried to find a vaccine appointment for her elderly parents. This photo has been blurred by CNN to protect personal data that appeared on the computer screens.

It's chaos as older people struggle to get a Covid-19 vaccine. Here is what you can do

Updated 4:43 PM ET, Tue January 19, 2021

(CNN)Nancy Wilkinson knows her way around the internet. Retired from a career in IT support, the 66-year-old was unfazed by the hurdles her Decatur, Georgia, neighbors and friends faced as they struggled to schedule appointments for the Covid-19 vaccine.

Nancy Wilkinson (left) and her wife Susan Phillips (right) were lucky to snag one of the few early appointments for Covid-19 vaccine.
Acting on a Sunday 4:30 a.m. email request to register, Wilkinson snagged an appointment last week for her wife, Susan, and herself just after Georgia announced that it was moving to Phase 1B of the phased rollout. That meant the vaccine would now be available to the state's 1.4 million seniors 65 and over, including Wilkinson. Yet her social media feed was filled with frustrated folks unable to find a shot anywhere.
"More than that, I have so many friends who are trying to make appointments for their elderly parents in other states and the information out there is just completely, totally confusing," Wilkinson said. "It's hard to find the freaking information if you don't live online like I do."
In Florida, where 4.2 million people over 65 reside, Rebecca Smith recently huddled over three computers trying to schedule a vaccine appointment for her parents, Murray and Toby Simon, who are in their late 70s.
"The county said everybody go online at 2 p.m. on a Monday get a slot for an appointment to get your vaccines and before 2 p.m. even hit, the website crashed and you couldn't get on," Smith said. "This happened for two weeks, and it was like paralysis."
Rebecca Smith (far right) is shown with her parents, Murray and Toby Simon, and her 5-year-old son Daniel Smith.
Finally, Smith said, the county decided to implement a lottery system that would release 1,400 shots every Monday to those who had registered.
"My parents got number 25,367. That was their lottery number," Smith said. "I did some math, and it would take like 71 weeks or something just to vaccinate the 100,000 people over 65 in our county."

The CDC plan

As hospitalization and deaths from Covid-19 skyrocket, many of the nation's 50 million seniors over 65 are struggling to navigate a confusing landscape of vaccine distribution plans that can differ from state to state and in some cases, county to county.
Here was the original plan. In December, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended a phased process for states to follow.
Phase 1a was to vaccinate the most at risk -- health care workers and elderly in long-term care facilities.
In Phase 1b, vaccines would be given to people ages 75 and older and non-health care frontline/essential workers, according to the committee.
Phase 1c would include people over age 65 and anyone between 16 and 64 years old with high-risk medical conditions, as well as any essential workers not already vaccinated.
Phase 1a has been underway for the last month in all 50 states and Washington, DC, according to an analysis published this week by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). In many cases, hospitals and clinics took on the task of vaccinating workers, while CVS and Walgreens tackled the long-term care facilities.
Immediately, however, some states went their own way. In Florida for example, where the Simons live, Gov. Ron DeSantis included all people over 65 into the 1a group. Other states added police and firefighters, while others included the incarcerated and homeless. Thirty states have tweaked the guidance and added in additional groups, KFF found.
While most states are still in some version of phase 1a, 10 states and Washington, DC have moved into Phase 1b, and Michigan has begun to implement 1c, according to KFF.
Communication to the public on which phase a state is in, how to find a vaccine and where to go to get the shot is left up to the state, typically the state health department, which may then leave it up to the county level to organize and administer.
In Georgia, for example, there are different phone numbers, websites, vaccine distribution centers and appointment links for each county. Yet people can book an appointment across counties, creating a confusing patchwork of detective work for the individual.
Then there is the issue of supply.
"What is challenging for our local health departments is the complete unpredictability of supply at this moment in time," said Lori Freeman, the CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
"Even when you have vaccination efforts going on, what we're seeing across the country is they're coming and going because this supply is not predictable," Freeman said. "They're being canceled at the last minute, and that sort of thing, so the predictability of the vaccine supply is at issue here."
To add to the confusion, a senior Trump administration official told CNN Friday that some reserve doses of vaccine had already been released into the system starting last year.
That could mean the vaccine could be scarce for some weeks, said Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
"We are hearing there is not a stockpile of vaccine for second dose but that it was more of a 'paper exercise,'" Plescia said. "Until there is a more robust supply we need to be clear with the public that opportunity to get the vaccine is limited."

Decades in the making

At this point in the pandemic, local health departments are filled with exhausted staff already stretched razor thin since adding Covid-19 testing to their regular duties last March.
Combine that with a decades-long lack of investment in computer and back-end infrastructure, and you have a network with every reason to fail.
"Call systems are crashing, websites are crashing due to the sheer volume and desire to get vaccinated," Freeman said.