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'Just Cruel': Digital Race For COVID-19 Vaccines Leaves Many Seniors Behind

Seniors and first responders try to snag one of 800 doses available at a vaccination site in Fort Myers, Fla.
Seniors and first responders try to snag one of 800 doses available at a vaccination site in Fort Myers, Fla.

With millions of older Americans eligible for COVID-19 vaccines and limited supplies, many continue to describe a frantic and frustrating search to secure a shot, beset by uncertainty and difficulty.

The efforts to vaccinate people who are 65 and older have strained under the enormous demand that has overwhelmed cumbersome, inconsistent scheduling systems.

The struggle represents a shift from the first wave of vaccinations — health care workers in health care settings — which went comparatively smoothly. Now, in most places, elderly people are pitted against each other competing on an unstable technological playing field for limited shots.

"You can't have the vaccine distribution be a race between elderly people typing and younger people typing," says Jeremy Novich, a clinical psychologist in New York City, who has begun a group to help people navigate the technology to get appointments. "That's not a race, that's just cruel."

While the demand is an encouraging sign of public trust in the vaccines, the challenges facing seniors also speak to the country's fragmented approach that has left many confused and enlisting family members to hunt down appointments.

"It's just maddening," says Bill Walsh with AARP. "It should be a smooth pathway from signing up to getting the vaccine and that's just not what we're seeing so far."

Glitchy websites, jammed phone lines and long lines outside clinics have become commonplace as states expand who's eligible — sometimes triggering a mad dash for shots that can sound more like trying to score a ticket for a music festival than obtaining a life-saving vaccine.

After being inundated, some public health departments are trying to hire more staff to handle their vaccination hotlines and to specifically target seniors who may not be able to navigate a complicated online sign-up process.

"Just posting a website and urging people to go there is not a recipe for success," says Walsh.

"Terribly competitive"

Like many seniors, Colleen Brooks, 85, had trouble sorting through the myriad online resources about how to find the vaccine where she lives, on Vashon Island in the Puget Sound near Seattle.

"It was an overwhelming amount of information," she says. "I knew it was here some place, but it wasn't easy to find out how to get it."

After making calls, Brooks eventually got a tip from a friend who had spotted the vaccines being unloaded at their town pharmacy. When she dropped by her health clinic to inquire about how to sign up, it happened they were giving out shots on that same day.

"That was totally serendipitous for me, but I actually personally know several seniors who just kind of gave up," says Brooks.

Finding out how to get a vaccine appointment was more straightforward for Gerald Kahn, 76, who lives in Madison, Conn.

Kahn got an email notice from the state's vaccine registration system telling him to make an appointment, but he ran into problems at the very end of the sign up process.

"As much as I would pound my finger on the face of my iPad, it didn't do me any good," he says.

So Kahn did what many have and called a younger family member who was able to help him finish the sign up process.

"I think there are a lot of people my age, maybe the preponderance, who can only go so far into the Internet, and then we're not only stymied but also frustrated," he says.

When Helen Francke, 92, logged on for a vaccine at the designated time, she discovered the spots available in Washington, D.C., filled up almost instantaneously.

"It was evident that I was much too slow," she says. "It's terribly competitive and clearly favors those with advanced computer skills."

The next week, Francke tried calling and going online — this time with the help of her neighbors — without success.

"If I had had to depend on the D.C. vaccination website and telephone, I'd still be anxious and unsuccessful," says Francke, who only got a shot after finding information on her neighborhood discussion board that directed her to a local hospital.

In Arizona, Karen Davis, 80, ended up on a roundabout quest through state and hospital websites with no clear sense of how to actually book an appointment.

"I kept trying to do it and kind of banged my head against the wall too many times," she says.

Davis, who's a retired nurse, called her doctor and the pharmacy, and then eventually turned to a younger relative who managed to book a 5 a.m. appointment at a mass vaccine site.

"I'm sure they did not expect older people to be able to do this," she says.

Meanwhile, Miguel Lerma, who lives in Phoenix, says his 69-year-old mother has been unsuccessful in finding a shot.

"She's not an English speaker and doesn't know technology well, and that's how everything is being done," says Lerma, 31.

Lerma says it's especially painful to watch his mother struggle to get the vaccine — because he lost his father to COVID-19 last year.

"She's mourning not only for my dad, but she's also suffering as an adult now because she depended on him for certain tasks," Lerma says. "He would've handled all this."

"Desperate" for a shot, seniors look for help

When the vaccine rollout began it lacked federal coordination, which resulted in a patchwork of different rules and systems that vary state to state and even county to county.

Seniors feel those shortcomings acutely because of the reliance on digital systems and other barriers to access like transportation, says Vivian Nava-Schellinger at the National Council on Aging and National Institute of Senior Centers.

Nava-Schellinger thinks the government should be more aggressively recruiting senior centers and community organizations to help reach older adults.

"When you don't have a coordinated effort, you will leave seniors behind and most likely they will be seniors who are in the more vulnerable populations," she says.

Philip Bretsky, a primary care doctor in Southern California, says his older patients would typically call him or visit their local pharmacy for vaccines like the annual flu shot, rather than rely on online scheduling systems.

"That's not how 85-year-olds have interacted with the health care system, so it's a complete disconnect," Bretsky says. "These folks are basically just investing a lot of time and not getting anything out of it."

California's recent decision to change its vaccination plan and open it up to those older than 65 only adds to the confusion.

Bretsky says his patients are being told to call their doctor for information, but he isn't even sure when his office, which is authorized to give the vaccine, will receive any.

"Patients in this age group want to know that they're at least being heard or somebody is thinking about the challenges they have," he says.

There are some local efforts to make that happen.

In the village of Los Lunas, New Mexico, public health workers held an in-person sign-up event for seniors who needed assistance or simply a device connected to the internet.

A Florida senior center recently held a vaccination registration event and a clinic specifically for people over 80 who might not have a computer.

Jeremy Novich, the clinical psychologist in New York, teamed up with a few people to create an informal help service for older adults. It began as a small endeavor, advertised through a few synagogues and his Facebook page. They've now helped more than 100 people get shots.

"We have a huge number of requests that are just piling up," says Novich.

"People are really desperate and they're also confused because nobody has actually explained to them when they are expected to get vaccinated... it's a big mess."

The ongoing shortage of vaccines has led Novich to halt the service for now.

This story is from NPR's partnership with Kaiser Health News.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.