En español | Sheron Gardner was determined to make COVID-19 vaccine appointments for herself and her partner. But the 75-year-old didn't have a working computer, so she spent more than a week trying to sign up using the official New York State telephone line.
"It was horrendous,” says Gardner, of Rochester, New York. “When I did get an appointment, it was two months in the future.” Many older adults seeking vaccines don't have computers, she says, adding, “It's just not fair."
Gardner and her partner finally got their vaccine doses by calling Lifespan of Greater Rochester Inc., a large nonprofit that provides information and services for older adults and caregivers. Lifespan has received a flood of calls — 75 to 100 new calls a day — from clients seeking appointments.
The clients who call “don't have computers, or they didn't have the skills to troll the sites all the time,” says Lifespan spokesperson Mary Rose McBride.
Most states have now approved vaccinations for adults age 65 and older, prompting a scramble for appointments. But that typically has to be done online, and many older adults are not connected. According to a 2019 study by the Pew Research Center, 27 percent of adults age 65 and older do not use the internet.
In Colorado, older adults face the same challenges.
"We're seeing that big time,” says Eileen Doherty, executive director of the Colorado Gerontological Society, a Denver-based nonprofit that offers assistance and advocacy. “And it's all technology-driven."
So those older adults without computer access are struggling to make vaccine appointments by telephone, instructed to call one phone number, then another, Doherty says.
One of her clients, Ralph Gean, a well-known musician who lives in the Denver suburb of Broomfield, doesn't own a computer or a car.
Out of the blue, Gean, 78, got a phone call from a hospital in Boulder, inviting him to come get his shot there. He was uncertain about the safety of the vaccine but decided he would go ahead and get it.
Still, the hospital is a 25-minute drive from Gean's home. A Colorado Gerontological Society staff member arranged a ride, and Gean received his first shot, with the second scheduled soon.
'Go Out to Where People Are'
Fresh ideas are needed to connect older adults to vaccines, says Lisa A. Cooper, M.D., an internist and director of the Center for Health Equity at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. “Go out to where people are,” Cooper says. “You can have the fanciest site, where it's all set up, and they're not coming.”
Cooper is encouraged by the use of mobile clinics to distribute vaccines. And she suggests that churches can also help. For example, congregants who drop off items at churchgoers’ homes can ask, “Say, have you had a vaccine shot yet?” and help with signup.
Libraries, too, are playing a role. Patt Saich, 81, of Diamond Springs, California, was startled to get a call from a local librarian, asking if she and her husband, Gary Saich, 85, wanted vaccines. They do not own a computer.
"Boy, did we jump on that,” says Patt Saich.
The call came from Kelly Jordan, a librarian with the Eldorado County Public Library System. It had received the phone numbers of people who had called a county hotline earlier, seeking the vaccine, Jordan says. When appointments opened up, librarians began making calls.
"I said, ‘Bless your heart,’ “ says Patt Saich, happy to report that she and her husband have now received both shots.
In some areas, Meals on Wheels is connecting homebound clients with agencies to arrange at-home vaccinations.
The digital divide can be especially challenging for people of color. Only 57 percent of Latinos and 58 percent of Blacks have computers, compared to 82 percent of whites, according to another 2019 Pew study.
"If you don't have that savviness in using technology, you're going to have to figure out a different way to sign up,” says Cooper, who studies health disparities at Johns Hopkins.
At the nonprofit Kedren Community Health Center in South Los Angeles, more than half the vaccines are going to seniors who walk in, largely Black and Latino residents.
They don't need to bring a phone or identification, says vaccination director Jerry P. Abraham. “We look them right in the eye. We make the clinical judgment that they're over 65."
In North Carolina, African Americans make up 21 percent of residents but 25 percent of COVID-19 deaths. Yet they're getting only 15 percent of vaccines, according to research from the San Francisco-based Kaiser Family Foundation.
Churches in the state have teamed up with Novant Health, a major regional health provider. The Park Church in Charlotte provided its large expo and conference facility and helped get the word out for a major February event, where more than 3,700 people received vaccinations.
One major hurdle is that many African Americans distrust the vaccine, a reluctance that has deep historic roots, including an infamous federal study that tracked hundreds of Black men with syphilis without revealing their diagnosis or treating them.
Only 42 percent of Black Americans plan to get vaccinated, according to a December 2020 Pew study.
"Any digital strategy is going to be complicated by the divide that is historical,” says Bishop Claude R. Alexander Jr., senior pastor at the Park Church.
The divide is also evident in Indian Country, says Larry Curley, executive director of the National Indian Council on Aging, a nonprofit based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
"They don't have access to the internet. Broadband isn't out there,” Curley says. “When you say, ‘Go to our website,’ it's just worthless.” And Native Americans have their own history of unethical medical treatment by a federal agency.
Yet Native American nations are bridging that gap, with close to 575,000 doses of the vaccine administered by the federal Indian Health Service as of March 1, a rate higher than many states.
Deborah Schoch is a contributing writer who covers health and science. A longtime journalist, she has most recently done work for AARP, The New York Times and KNBC-TV Los Angeles.
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