On April 30th, I received a text from my French friend Arnaud, saying that health minister Olivier Véran announced that those with chronic illnesses over the age of 18 – around 4 million people – were now eligible for the Covid vaccine.
Journalist Nicolas Berrod of Le Parisien tweeted that a “simple declaration would suffice”.
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Pas besoin de prescription médicale pour se faire vacciner (avec Pfizer ou Moderna) à partir de demain si on souffre de comorbidités et qu'on a moins de 50 ans. Une simple "déclaration" suffira. pic.twitter.com/PXYLUjxCmM
— Nicolas Berrod (@nicolasberrod) April 30, 2021
I wrote Arnaud back, “Can I just show up to the pharmacy or vaccination centre?”
To be completely honest, I had just given up trying to get France to vaccinate me here as even my doctors weren’t optimistic that, despite my chronic and severe asthma, I would be vaccinated before the summer.
Arnaud, a French academic to whom I owe so much of my sanity, sent me a link to ViteMaDose, a simple website that allows you to find vaccine appointments after you put in your location.
The website was simple and easy to navigate: all the locations are listed and it tells you in real time how many slots are available on Doctolib. At first glance, options and vaccines almost seem abundant! However, it took me around 20 minutes of trying to secure a vaccine.
Many of the centres when you selected a motif de consultation no longer were an option.
For example, some testing sites didn’t let you sign up for your first dose, and a few others didn’t let those under the age of 60 sign up. Many vaccination centres that had less than five slots also filled up by the time I got to the calendar and for others – because you sign up for both shots at the same time – if you take more than 20 seconds to select the dates that work for you, your initial appointment was snatched up by someone else.
Like a good online sale, it’s not yours until you complete your transaction.
I was able to secure two Pfizer vaccine appointments for myself and my French partner, who also has asthma, at a vaccine centre. What I found was that vaccination centres associated with the Mairies had the most availability.
Before completing your appointments, DoctoLib shows you a long list of eligibility and I ticked the one for co-mobidities (underlying illnesses that make you more prone to developing the most serious forms of Covid, find the full list of qualifying conditions HERE.)
Having been told that a simple declaration would suffice, I convinced myself I didn’t need to prepare anything.
Like I do in preparation for everything – because my French is good but not perfect – I came up with a speech in my head in the case I was turned away at the vaccination centre.
On Wednesday May 5th, two days before my appointment, I received a text from “Vaccination” with a link that took me to a page of things I would need for my appointment: including a medical certificate for my condition.
The French heath ministry and regional health services have since clarified that a certificate is not necessary, but I guess as this was early in the days for under 55s getting the vaccine DoctoLib hadn’t updated their communications and sent me the standard confirmation under the old rules.
This sent me into something of a panic – my regular doctor wasn’t available, so I sprinted to another doctor who sometimes sees me for non-life threatening emergencies as a walk-in.
He listened to my lungs to make sure my asthma was okay because I was huffing and puffing in his office and then put in my social security details and printed me out an official certificate titled éligible à la vaccination contre la Covid-19. It had a vaccination code unique to me and it was one of the most serious looking documents I have come across here.
I started to hear whispers on the internet about how people were being turned away from vaccination centres so I started to put together a dossier as I would for a renewal of my residency card at the préfecture.
I put together letters from Sophia, a service from Assurance Maladie for those with chronic illnesses, and even old prescriptions for asthma medication.
I also asked my boyfriend for help with the process – as he is French – and he told me that we needed a negative Covid test to go to the centre.
I’ve since found out that is only the case if you have had Covid within the last three months, but that added an extra level of stress as we scrambled to get a test in time.
He had a thirty minute window on Thursday, the day before our appointments, and went to see his doctor and to get an antigen test at the pharmacy next door.
As I picked up the results of the antigen test and I asked the pharmacist, who I have known my whole tenure here in France, “do you think this antigen result is good enough even though it isn’t a PCR? The administrative work here has me traumatised.” She laughed and told me, “It’s like that for all of us. It’s time but it’s free!”
On the day of our appointments we showed up on time ad there was a short queue – I would strongly recommend that you show up 15 minutes in advance.
They check you in and send you to the waiting room where they have a chaotic but organised system of queuing.
In the booths, there is a person taking your details and carte vitale medical card [although vaccination is possible for people who don’t have the card].
This person asks you a bunch of questions regarding your health – do you have Covid symptoms, are you pregnant etc – and also asked me on what grounds I was there, so I explained about my asthma, and she could also see the certificate from my doctor which was linked to my carte vitale.
There wasn’t a long interrogation about my health condition, but I did have to explain why I was there as I’m clearly under 55.
Another person comes in and instructs you to take the over-the-counter painkiller Doliprane if you feel any side effects from the vaccine.
After the shot, you are then taken to another waiting room by the person who administered the vaccine where you stay for 15 minutes to make sure you don’t have any adverse reactions before you’re called up to confirm your second appointment before issuing you with the vaccination certificate which has the QR code that you can scan into the ‘health pass’.
If all goes well, the whole process should take 45 minutes as it did for my partner.
It took me two hours – but that’s because after I had actually been vaccinated they misplaced my vaccine certificate, so I had to wait for ages.
Eileen Cho is a freelance journalist living in Paris – find more of her work here.