Italy and me: the Covid booster

At least 99% of my posts are positive if not effusive about Italy. But, every so often, I bang up against a wall here that nearly knocks me off my feet. This week was one of those weeks.

It’s Saturday morning, 2 weeks before Christmas, as I write this and I have been feeling anything but cheerful. Or well. I don’t have Covid, but I had a nasty reaction to the booster shot that I got on Wednesday.

But, my saga starts well before that. After the vaccine became widely available last winter/spring, I could not get the first two shots in Italy prior to June, because as of that date, they hadn’t opened the availability of shots to foreigners in Italy. Which of course makes no sense, because there are a lot of us and if you are trying to vaccinate a high majority of people, you would vaccinate anyone willing to take the shots.

As it happened, I was returning to the US for the summer anyway, so I decided to not fight the system in Italy and just wait. I arrived June 1 and got my first shot with no hassle at a local supermarket pharmacy on June 2. 3 weeks later I got the second shot. I got Pfizer both times and had no reaction other than a tender injection site.

All was well until the arrival of Omircron variant this past month and the high level of concern that has swept the world since. It has just been 6 months since my double vaccination in the US and technically I should be good for another 3 months, but everyone is being urged to get the booster and in Italy you are theoretically allowed to do that 5 months after your last shot, not like US where you need to wait 6 months.

I have another consideration regarding the booster. I plan to remain in Italy through March of 2022 and then go to France. I have no idea what the system for vaccination in France is and I will be at 9 months by that point after my 2nd vaccination. If the rules become tighter, I might not be allowed into France without the booster and I could be in big trouble.

Sometime over the past 6 months it has become possible for foreigners in Italy to get the vaccine (first shot, 2nd shot and booster), but you know, don’t you, that there would be a difficult, complicated path to do so. Of course you know that. If you follow my blog. Or read anything about Italy.

I am tremendously blessed here in that I have several wonderful Italian friends who help me figure out the byzantine rules here. But, it is easy to take advantage of such friendships and that’s a pet peeve. I try, therefore, to solve my own problems as much as possible by myself.

I’d heard that you go to this website to learn about how to get any one of the 3 shots in Tuscany: https://prenotavaccino.sanita.toscana.it/#/home. It takes you here:

Scrolling down, you come to this item, which is “reserved for those who are not enrolled in the national health care system),” which pertains to me. I can enroll in the national health care system and have. It is expensive and has very little value for money for me. I have opted not to enroll the past 2 years.

Theoretically (n.b.: that’s a key word when living in this country), I should be able to open this page by clicking on the green dot and I’ll be set. But, not so fast.

Clicking takes me to the following screen. It says, “here is the method to register online in Tuscany for any anti Covid vaccine.” Then you fill in the blanks, first and last names, “codice numerico” (hang on, I discuss below), email, cellphone number and click, and I’m not a robot. Seems simple and straightforward, and I do all of it in a rush, but wait, what is the codice numerico (number code) they want?

I try my Codice Fiscale (kind of like a social security number in Italy)–the box will not accept the letters that are a part of this.

I call friends, I go to pharmacists, nobody knows what code this is. Friends look at all of my documents, could it be my passport number? No. Could it be my Florentine residency card number? No. I don’t have my 2021 Permesso di Soggiorno card yet (permit to stay in Italy. I applied for my 2021 card in Oct. of 2020 and still do not have it. This is normal under Covid). So, I try the number associated with my expired PS. No.

I am beginning to pull my hair out a little bit at a time. I’m not panicked because I am well within 6 months of my last shot for now, but then on Monday last, Italy changed the rules again. Now, everyone is required to carry a “super green pass”. Up until now, my CDC card from America has sufficed, but when will that change? Where will I be when it changes? Trying to travel?

I turn to my trusty friends groups on Facebook, such as Foreigners in Florence, and ask questions. Does anybody know what number that is?

The tempo is picking up on these Facebook groups as everyone struggles to figure out how to get the shots (be they 1, 2 or 3). Panic is setting in. We hear that you can go to the big vaccination site in Florence at the basketball stadium, known as Forum Nelson Mandela.

After a few days, somebody on Facebook has figured out the code. It is the number under the bar code on your last application for the Permesso di Soggiorno, only you drop the initial 0.

Here’s my PS receipt. I carry it in my wallet at all times, to prove I’ve applied for a new PS since my last permission to live in Italy is expired. Sure enough, if I drop the 0 and ignore the dash between 5-6, the number works.

I’m ready to break out the prosecco.

Remember, we are days into this process already. So, I click on avanti and am taken into a new page. Rut row: here I must choose between 4 options that describe my particular set of circumstances before making an appointment. None of the sets of circumstances apply to me (for example, I am not embassy personnel, etc.). Catch 22. You’re in Italy.

Dead space. Now what.

I pull out more hair, and consider weeping.

I decide to fib. I say one of the sets of circumstances fits me. I’ll figure I’ll deal with the consequences once I get my reservation.

But, again…not so fast. I am congratulated that my application has been accepted! But then it says the doses are currently limited and they don’t know when I will be able to make a reservation for the vaccine. I am told I find more information by clicking qui, and am thanked for my cooperation.

You know what happens, when I click qui, right? Pages and pages of text that I’ve already read that give me no new information.

Now what?

I contact my British doctor here in Florence and ask him how to get the booster. He says the only way is to make an online reservation at the webpage given at the top of my post.

An Italian friend calls her friend the doctor to ask how I can get the booster when I’m unable to make a reservation online. She says I must go to Mandela and take my chances.

A day later, somebody on Facebook says you can go to Mandela without a reservation and sometimes you can get in and get a shot. My Italian friend has an appointment on Tuesday at 11 for her booster shot at Mandela and she invites me to go with her where maybe…maybe she can talk her way into a shot for me. Such things have happened before.

I meet her there. The authorities will not even listen to her when she asks on my behalf; they tell me to come back tomorrow, Wednesday, for it will be an unannounced “open day.” Meaning, we suppose, anyone can get a shot, without a reservation.

I’m at Mandela at 8 a.m. on Wednesday and hear people murmuring on the sidelines. I find an ally. She tells me they only have Moderna vaccines; she’s there for her first shot; you have to go to the barriers where 2 Italian older men are operatically fending off all comers. One of them has the golden ticket. In fact, she thinks he has 50 golden tickets to hand out to the first 50 persistent (not to say aggressive) people who entreat the man for a slip of paper.

I leave my American body. I transform into a pilgrim, seeking salvation from the one person on earth that can give it to me. I become an aggressive, down-wrapped bundle of puffer coat, not taking no for an answer. I plow my way to the front. I get a slip. I am number 19.

What happened, you ask, to the concept of the “open day,” in which anyone can get a vaccine. Well, it has transformed too. Into 50 golden tickets that will last less than 1 hour. After that, sorry Charlie, the open day is over. And the rumor is, they will have no more of them.

Now, with my slip of paper, I am giddy. I’m still outside in the cold with all the other pilgrims and there’s no queue. They don’t do that here.

We are a chaotic group of pilgrims, all borrowing my pen because we have to fill out the slips of paper on each other’s backs. Now we huddle near the operatic men busy letting in Italians with appointments. No announcements are made. Nobody knows what is going to happen.

Times like this freak me out. As an American, I have never experienced this kind of panicky waiting and neglect by authorities. If I were at home, I could expect organization and someone who knew what would happened next. I could ask questions. Here, it is useless. It always makes me think of WWII movies and people desperate to cross borders. Of course my life doesn’t hinge on decisions made by operatic men at the Mandela Forum on this day, but you need to give that information to my amygdala. It is on high alert.

Somehow, I have become the leader of a small group of pilgrims in this quest. We are composed of an American, a German, 2 Russians. We laugh hysterically at the way Italy is run, because we are all a little bit hysterical. We madly giggle at the way it feels like we are on a scavenger hunt, when we are actually trying to be good global citizens, following the recommended rules for saving humanity from this scourge. I counsel everyone to be aggressive. This is no country for the timid, I say. Who am I?

Then, with no warning, 4 people in our larger group of pilgrims are let inside the barriers by the opera men. We crowd closer in. A little bit later the next 4 are let in, and I am aggressively one of them. I see an opening, or I make an opening, and I am in! I look back longingly at my new German friend; he has been left behind.

Later, he’s in too! We are happy! We discover we now need to fill out a new sheet of paper, but where do we get it and which one? There are 2. One impatient opera man has both sets. He asks me if I want the first shot or 3rd and he’s frustrated when I don’t understand him. Eventually I figure out that “terza” is the name we are using for the booster shot. I get the form. I fill it out on a little round bar table (one of 2 they have provided for 20 people or so) they supply. There are 6 of us at at table meant for 3. Using my pens.

We help each other figure out what information is asked for on the 2 sides of the one sheet we are given. On both sides we are asked to fill in our full names and places, dates of birth. My German friend remarks that Italian bureaucracy is like this: it is either almost non-existent, or Uber-bureaucratic. Seems like the right comment from a German.

We copy each other’s forms, checking boxes we only half understand because we just want to get to the next stop on this scavenger hunt and not be left behind. No one shows us the way. We don’t know where we are going (we hope inside the Mandela building, because it is raining now too) or when. We get into lines. We remark happily that we notice the lines are moving pretty quickly.

We get inside the building and see that it is set up with social distancing, which is kind of funny too, because we have been huddling for the past hour in our school of pilgrims and I assure you there was no social distancing there!

We are told where to sit. Now it is a game of musical chairs, except that no-one is going to be missing a chair as there are plenty now. We can begin to relax.

The line of seated people in chairs moves quickly. We arrive individually at a desk with an authority sitting on the opposite side with a screen. I show my forms filled out outside the forum. And ID. And reiterate that I am getting the 3rd shot, told it will be Moderna; I agree. Much of this info is entered into a computer.

Now I am told to wait in another spot with my new form to be filled out by the doctor who administers my booster. When I arrive in this spot, I see my doc; reading his phone.

I give him the benefit of the doubt. It is probably mind-numbing to administer shot after shot for hours on end, day after day.

He calls me in, asks me if I’m Italian with my first name, and we go over my paperwork. All is well. He gives me the shot. I ask him how it’s going. He says he has given around 10,000 shots since May, when he started. I wish him a Buon Natale.

I’m told to go to another waiting area and wait 15 minutes to be sure I don’t have a reaction to the shot.

Fortunately I don’t have a reaction and I meet up again with my German friend. We exchange numbers. It’s as if we have been in combat together.

Postscript: as a part of the process, during the brief interview, I am told to email photos of all my documents and my new form showing I’ve been given the 3rd shot, to an email address. It is highlighted in yellow on the photo of the document below. Please note: the first letter is missing. The authority calls this to my attention and reminds me to remember that it is a “U”. Sending these documents in is supposed to result in me acquiring the “super green pass.” I asked when I will receive it. He makes the “chissa‘?” gesture: who knows?

I notice this and photograph it:

At least now I won’t have to remember to add a U to the email address.

Then I notice this and photograph it in case I need more info later. Because, chissa‘?!!

It says if I have any problems, I can call 1500. Ha ha. Right. As if.

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