For six weeks, retired teacher Ellen Barrett, 77, said she felt like she had a full-time job: looking for a coronavirus vaccine.
She contacted Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. She believed she was getting appointments at Montgomery County Community College and the St. Luke Health System in Bethlehem only to be notified that they had been canceled. When a friend or neighbor texted Barrett that they had made an appointment, she ran to her computer to be disfellowshipped. Finally, in February Barrett got her first shot at Yorktown Pharmacy, where she was on the waiting list for six weeks.
“It’s like you’ve won the lottery,” she said. But the complex, time-consuming process around the clock to get a coveted appointment was “beyond my understanding”. She has friends, she said, who are entitled due to their age and health, but “at the end of their joke” could not get appointments. And these people, she said, are computer savvy.
People aged 65 and over can be vaccinated in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In Pennsylvania, about 44% of seniors, excluding those who live in Philadelphia, had received at least one dose in early March, according to the Department of Health. In New Jersey, about half of the seniors were vaccinated, according to state data.
But two months after the coronavirus vaccine was launched, many of Pennsylvania’s 2.2 million seniors said they missed an appointment, according to a statewide AARP poll, and their frustration with the process only increased on the news a second. Dose shortages and controversy over vaccine supply to the southeastern region.
It’s life and death, “said Bill Johnston-Walsh, state director of AARP Pennsylvania.” What we hear from our members is that they don’t know where to turn. “
In February, the AARP found that only about 27% of its members were able to schedule an appointment, according to an informal survey of more than 3,000 seniors in Pennsylvania. Respondents described the rollout as “the wild west,” “dung shooting,” and “humiliating hunger games,” said Johnston-Walsh.
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Those who secured appointments said they spent hours on it, with some ultimately making appointments across the state.
In Delaware County, where nearly 17% of the population is 65 years and older, Monica Taylor, vice chairwoman of the county council, said most of the frustration she hears comes from seniors. “They are our most vulnerable population,” she said, “and they are having the greatest difficulty getting the vaccine.”
High-profile advocates like Johnston-Walsh, as well as the area’s lawmakers and district officials, say the 65-year-olds and older are being excluded from the process by younger people who are eligible on the basis of work and health. They are often more tech-savvy and can physically wait in long lines for walk-in clinics or drive to another county. Without a central phone number for vaccine registration or high-level vaccination centers, many proponents worry about what will happen to much of the older population – most likely to suffer serious illness and death from COVID-19 – if vaccination eligibility continues to grow.
“I am very concerned that people are lagging behind on this vaccination program,” said Karen Buck, director of the SeniorLAW Center in Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania is working to prevent this from happening, said Health Department spokesman Maggi Barton, but has been hampered by limited vaccine supplies from the federal government. The Pennsylvania Department of Aging is working with Walmart on clinics that seniors don’t have to enroll in online, and mandating people to be cared for by a pharmacy assistance program for lower-income older adults. The state’s 52 regional agencies for aging can also help residents get vaccination appointments and transportation, she added.
In Philadelphia, the huge racial and economic inequalities that have hampered vaccine adoption are worsening for older Philadelphians, a large, diverse, and economically disadvantaged population. In early March, the city, whose vaccination schedule is separate from the state, extended its eligibility to people aged 65 and over. Current data on the percentage of seniors vaccinated in Philadelphia were not immediately available.
Approximately 19% of Philadelphians are 60 years or older, and more than 40% of them live in poverty, the highest percentage of the 10 largest cities in the country. Of Philly’s seniors, about 53% are non-white, colored people, and about 13% are foreign-born residents.
Older Philadelphians face immense language, accessibility and transportation barriers when signing up for appointments and having access to clinics, Buck said. If the city doesn’t turn to the existing network of aging to find solutions like mobile vaccination sites, the barriers and inequalities will remain.
Some elderly Pennsylvanians have given up trying to find a vaccine. State Senator Judy Ward, a Republican who represents several counties in central Pennsylvania, said senior voters had “just closed”, overwhelmed by the patchwork system. Rep. Frank Farry, a Republican from Bucks County, said his mother gave up making an appointment after failing to successfully register on multiple websites.
Older proponents say that something simple would make these hunts easier: a central phone line.
“The answer isn’t just ‘update your browser’ for an 82-year-old,” said Republican Gary Day, a Republican from Berks and Lehigh counties who chairs the Committee on Aging and Older Services for Adults.
The Pennsylvania Health Department has a general concern hotline, but it is not vaccine specific.
Across the state, many providers require patients to register online and communicate with them primarily through email.
AARP’s Johnston-Walsh and SeniorLAW Center’s Buck attend regular meetings with high-level groups and the Department of Health where advocates urge better access to vaccines for elderly Pennsylvanians.
Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam recently attended a one-hour AARP phone town hall attended by 15,000 members, 650 of whom waited in line to ask questions, Johnston-Walsh said.
Johnston-Walsh said he believes Beam and others are listening to residents’ concerns. But “I wish they would move a little faster,” he said.
Several Pennsylvania counties have tried to fill the gap themselves. In Allegheny, home of Pittsburgh, people 65 and older who don’t have internet access can call 211, noted Angela Foreshaw-Rouse, manager of state operations and public relations for AARP Pennsylvania.
Chester County started its own coronavirus call center, as did neighboring Delaware. While callers can’t sign up for appointments, they do appreciate speaking to a living person who can answer questions and empathize. “I think having one voice makes people feel better,” said Marian Moskowitz, Chester County Commissioner.
With authors Ellie Rushing, Justine McDaniel and Allison Steele
By Erin McCarthy
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)