Computer-Shy Elderly Are Shouldered Aside in Vaccination Race

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As more and more people compete for short supplies of the life-saving Covid-19 vaccine, some of the oldest and most infirm Americans are struggling just to enter the contest.

Tom Yates, 71, who has metastatic prostate cancer, moved out of an assisted-living facility last year to avoid the virus. Now he’s in dire need of a shot, but unable to secure it.

“I’m not really good at surfing websites — my eyesight isn’t that great,” Yates said from his home in Lacey, Washington. Friends in Arizona went to a mass vaccination site at a football stadium, but for him that wasn’t an option: “It’s not like I can drive myself. I’m in an electric wheelchair and use dial-a-ride. They can’t wait for hours.”

Yates and many like him have been locked out thanks to a lack of access to and familiarity with smartphones, computers and web-based appointment signups. The problem has worsened as states open shots to people 65 and older, putting the oldest in competition for rapidly disappearing slots with seniors who are more computer-savvy and mobile.

“It remains a challenge for people that can’t navigate the internet,” said Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican. His state is coordinating with cities and county health departments to find and vaccinate those who aren’t covered by teams sent to retirement centers. “Doctor offices are calling people, and hospitals are going out,” he said.

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On Jan. 8, when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo extended vaccine eligibility to people 75 and older, Rich Pipia sat online for hours trying to get appointments for his parents on Long Island. He was finally able to get two slots — for April 6 in Jones Beach, 30 miles away. He plans to drive them.

Pipia’s mother, Marie, is 79. His father, Richard, 80, has chronic lymphocytic leukemia and recovered from Covid-19 in April. Their son is hanging on to the April slots as he spends hours calling health centers and pharmacies to get earlier dates. “This is like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” he said.

Suffolk County, which includes part of Long Island, is distributing as few as 3,000 doses a week for a population of 1.5 million, according to an Instagram post from Southampton Mayor Jesse Warren.

Getting one requires fast fingers, constant website refreshing, printing out confirmations, or access to a smartphone for text alerts. One New York City system asked elderly users to take photos of their insurance card, front and back, and upload them. Many have turned to their children, disadvantaging those who are alone.

Aging Out

Ric Lewis, who helps design Microsoft software, is struggling to help his relatives. His father-in-law is in his mid-80s and blind; his mother-in-law, in her late 70s, has stopped driving. Neither uses a smartphone, so Lewis has submitted his own number. The earliest slots he could get them are in mid-March.

“If I have to get on a website or get a phone app or even receive texts, you have blocked out a lot of folks over 80,” he said.

Last week, AARP in New York, which has asked Cuomo to improve access to shots, shared complaints from seniors. The organization said almost 60% of the nearly 3,000 people they surveyed failed at getting an appointment.

“Call systems across the country and health departments are failing,” said Lori Freeman, chief executive officer of the National Association of County and City Health Officials. “They’re getting like 80,000 calls in an hour.”

House Calls

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis urged seniors to call their congressional representatives and ask them to send more doses. The fire department in Miami Beach is making house calls to help the homebound and others, dispensing 1,055 doses, said city spokeswoman Melissa Berthier.

Margaret Ring, 76, of Davenport, Florida, said her husband, LeRoy, 84, received the vaccine on Jan. 25 through a program serving veterans. He got the appointment only because his computer-savvy daughter found a way to get in touch with the Veterans Administration in Orlando, said Ring, who still hasn’t locked in a slot for herself.

“When you Google something, you get a whole page full of things you can click on, and nothing ever tells you to schedule an appointment, so I get discouraged,” she said.

The couple drove by a vaccination site in Clermont, where they found scores of cars lined up and police trying to help. “There was kind of chaos, so I thought, ‘Nah,’” Ring said.

Seniors like Yates who moved out of assisted-living facilities because of the virus are finding that their former homes vaccinated residents while they’re shut out.

Robert Lauer, 91, a Korean War veteran, moved from assisted living into a community reserved for seniors in Delray Beach, Florida. Phone calls to the VA, the state health department and Covid help line resulted in nothing more than this advice: Get up at 5:45 a.m. on Wednesdays or Fridays to secure an online appointment at a Publix supermarket.

His daughter Nancy Rubin is coming from Minnesota to take matters in hand.

“I’m going down there in the beginning of February, and I’m going to try to drive him through somewhere — that’s my last option,” she said. “He’s completely isolated. He’s basically a shut-in because he’s trying not to die.”

Impromptu Aid

With little state or local aid, individuals are stepping in to help seniors. In Pennington, New Jersey, former emergency medical technician Constance Else tacked up flyers in stores and police departments, offering free help navigating online registration and appointments. She started the service about a week ago after an elderly woman approached her at the ShopRite grocery store and asked whether she knew how and where to get a shot.

“I’ll come to their house and do it on their computer, or we can do it over the phone on mine,” said Else, 53, who as of Monday had assisted about 40 people. They are “scared to death of Covid, and they need someone to talk to.”

Even for those who get online, information is disorganized and often wrong. Sue Heath, 77, a retired bookkeeper and school-bus driver, has been looking for a spot for her 78-year-old husband since he became eligible two weeks ago.

“I go on just about every hour on the hour,” said Heath, from Ewing, New Jersey. Her list so far includes three hospitals, a grocery store’s pharmacy, an urgent-care center and a sports-medicine doctor — all places suggested online.

She vividly recalled the response from a person who answered the phone at the physician’s office: “No, we are not going to have the vaccine. And I don’t know why we’re on the list.”

— With assistance by Elise Young, Jonathan Levin, Anastasia Bergeron, Christopher Palmeri, Alexander Ebert, and Keshia Clukey

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