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COVID-19 Vaccine Priority for Older Adults Comes to an End

AARP continues work to give 50-plus Americans trusted information on access to shots

Residents wear protective masks while waiting to be vaccinated at a West Virginia United Health System Covid-19 vaccine clinic

Justin Merriman/Bloomberg via Getty Images

En español | Beginning April 19, President Biden wants all Americans age 18 and over to be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. That means the priority the government has placed on getting shots in the arms of older adults is ending.

As of April 13, more than 79 percent of adults age 65 and over had received at least one vaccine dose and nearly 63 percent were fully vaccinated, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Among adults ages 50 to 64, just over 53 percent had gotten at least one dose and nearly 29 percent were fully vaccinated.

“I think it’s important to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible,” especially given concerns about cases surging in various areas of the country, says Bruce Hirsch, an infectious disease specialist and attending physician with Northwell Health, the largest health care system in New York.

Older Americans have been a priority

When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines emergency use authorization in December, a CDC advisory panel established priority categories for people to be eligible for what was initially a very limited supply of vaccine. Americans age 65 and over were categorized as a high priority. First responders, health care workers and people with certain underlying health conditions were also prioritized.

Although some states have already opened up vaccine eligibility to all adults, until April 19 older adults will still have priority in many. AARP has created individual state vaccine guides with links to where people can sign up online for a shot and information about vaccines available through pharmacies or federal and state mass vaccination sites. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is available for people age 16 and older, and the Moderna vaccine is open to people 18 and older.

After the priority categories are lifted, more people will be competing for available doses, although federal officials say that the availability of vaccine has been rapidly increasing and that by the end of May there will be enough product available for every American who wants a shot. In the wake of the pause in the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Biden reiterated that there would be ample doses of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines to inoculate all adult Americans by the end of next month.

People of all ages have reported challenges in signing up for vaccinations, especially in the early weeks and months of the rollout. But older Americans have been particularly challenged. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation COVID-19 vaccine monitoring project’s March survey, 63 percent of older adults (over age 65) who had not been vaccinated said they didn’t have enough information about when they could get vaccinated, and 45 percent said they didn’t have enough information about where they could go to get the vaccine. Sixteen percent of that population said they had tried but been unable to get an appointment for a shot.

AARP’s education campaign

Throughout the vaccine rollout, AARP has “been advocating to state, local and federal officials that they prioritize older residents,” says Khelan Bhatia, AARP’s senior adviser for voter education and coordinator of AARP’s vaccine education campaign. “Over the last few months what we’ve been trying to do is be a trusted source of relevant, reliable, valid and current information on COVID vaccines to our members and the general public so they can make the best personal decisions for themselves when it comes to receiving the vaccine.”

Hirsch says that while the number of older Americans who have been vaccinated is impressive, those who have not “is a more challenging population to reach because they are people who may be hesitant, who may be cautious, may be a group of people who may be disabled, have decreased mobility, the inability to go to a vaccine center or be unable to access [vaccine appointments] over the internet.”

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Now that most of what Hirsch termed the “low-hanging fruit” of older Americans has been vaccinated, Bhatia says AARP will be focusing on people who haven’t gotten information about how they can access the vaccine in their community.

“We want to make sure people have the most factual information in their hands,” Bhatia says. “AARP has been partnering with organizations in multicultural communities that are seen as credible voices in those communities so we can reach those people who might be a little hesitant because they may have either gotten misinformation or may not have the full picture.” AARP has used a variety of techniques, including social media, direct mail, advertising and tele-town halls, to get the word out. In addition, AARP has created vaccination information guides for each state so people can get information tailored to their communities.

Dena Bunis covers Medicare, health care, health policy and Congress. She also writes the “Medicare Made Easy” column for the AARP Bulletin. An award-winning journalist, Bunis spent decades working for metropolitan daily newspapers, including as Washington bureau chief for the Orange County Register and as a health policy and workplace writer for Newsday.