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Pa. seniors are ‘at their wit’s ends’ trying to get coronavirus vaccines

“It is life and death. They’re constantly telling us they want to see their grandchildren again,” said Bill Johnston-Walsh, state director of AARP Pennsylvania.

Edna Wooden, 101, gets her COVID-19 vaccine from Dr. Kisha Martin at Holy Redeemer Hospital.
Edna Wooden, 101, gets her COVID-19 vaccine from Dr. Kisha Martin at Holy Redeemer Hospital.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

For six weeks, retired teacher Ellen Barrett, 77, said she felt like she had a full-time job: searching for a coronavirus vaccine.

She contacted Montgomery County. She thought she secured appointments at Montgomery County Community College, she said, and with St. Luke’s health system in Bethlehem, only to later be notified they’d been canceled without explanation. Every time a friend or neighbor texted Barrett saying they had successfully made an appointment, she ran to the computer in her Elkins Park home, only to be shut out. Finally last month, Barrett got her first shot at the small Yorktown Pharmacy, where she had been on a waiting list for six weeks.

“It’s like you’ve won the lottery,” she said. But the complex, all-consuming, 24/7 process to get that coveted appointment was “beyond my comprehension.” She has several friends, she said, who are eligible due to their age and health conditions but are “at their wit’s ends,” unable to get appointments. And these people, she said, are computer savvy.

“What about the people who don’t have computers?” Barrett said

In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, any senior, 65 and older, is eligible to be vaccinated. In Pennsylvania, about 44% of seniors, excluding those who live in Philadelphia, had received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine as of Tuesday, according to Department of Health data. In New Jersey, about half of its seniors have been vaccinated, according to state data, and Camden County, which has given shots to nearly half its 65-plus population, has done targeted outreach, including busing older residents to the FEMA site in Camden city, a spokesperson said.

But two months into the coronavirus vaccine rollout, many of Pennsylvania’s 2.2 million seniors said they have not been able to get an appointment for a shot, according to a statewide AARP survey, and their frustration with the process has only mounted, amid the news of a second-dose shortage and controversy over the southeast region’s vaccine supply.

» READ MORE: More COVID-19 vaccine should go to counties that want it most, suburban Philly lawmakers tell state

“It is life and death. They’re constantly telling us they want to see their grandchildren again,” said Bill Johnston-Walsh, state director of AARP Pennsylvania. “What we’re hearing from our members is they don’t know where to turn.”

Last month, AARP found that at the time only about 27% of its members had been able to secure an appointment, according to the informal survey of more than 3,000 Pennsylvania seniors, while 81% had tried unsuccessfully. When asked to describe the vaccine rollout, respondents called it “the wild west,” a “crap shoot,” and a “degrading Hunger Games,” Johnston-Walsh said.

The ones who secured appointments, he added, reported spending hours doing so, with some ultimately making appointments at clinics across the state.

» READ MORE: Philly hospitals care for thousands of suburban patients but can’t give them COVID-19 vaccines

In Delaware County, where nearly 17% of the population is 65 and older, Monica Taylor, vice chair of county council, said most of the frustration she hears is from seniors.

“They are our most vulnerable population,” she said, “and they are having the most difficulty getting the vaccine.”

Senior advocates like Johnston-Walsh, as well as the region’s lawmakers and county officials, say those 65 and older are being boxed out of the process by younger people who are eligible due to their jobs and health conditions. They are often more tech-savvy, poised to quickly snatch up appointments on the websites of health systems and pharmacies, and physically able to wait in hours-long lines for walk-up clinics or drive to another county to get a shot. Without a central phone number for vaccine registration or senior-specific inoculation locations, many advocates worry about what will happen to much of the older population — the most likely to suffer serious illness and death from COVID-19 —when vaccine eligibility expands even more.

“I am very concerned that people will be left behind in this vaccine scheme,” said Karen Buck, director of the Philadelphia-based SeniorLAW Center.

Pennsylvania is working to ensure this doesn’t happen, Department of Health spokesperson Maggi Barton said, but has been hamstrung by a limited supply of vaccine from the federal government. The Pennsylvania Department of Aging is working with Walmart on clinics that seniors don’t need to sign up for online, she said, and pre-enrolling people served by a pharmacy assistance program for lower-income older adults. The state’s 52 Area Agencies on Aging can also help residents make vaccine appointments and arrange transportation, she added.

In Philadelphia, the vast racial and economic inequities that have been barriers to its vaccine rollout are exacerbated for elderly Philadelphians, a large, diverse, and economically disadvantaged population. On Wednesday, the city, which has its own vaccine plan separate from the state, expanded its eligibility to include people 65 and older. Previously, people 75 and older and younger people with high-risk conditions could be vaccinated. Current data on the percent of Philadelphia seniors who had been vaccinated was not immediately available.

» READ MORE: Federally funded health clinics are getting COVID-19 vaccines to more people of color

About 19% of Philadelphians are 60 or older, and more than 40% of these elderly residents live in poverty, the highest percent of the nation’s 10 largest cities. Of Philly’s seniors, about 53% are non-white, people of color, and about 13% are foreign-born residents.

Elderly Philadelphians face immense language, accessibility, and transportation barriers when signing up for appointments and accessing clinics, Buck said. If the city does not tap into the existing aging network to find solutions, like mobile vaccine sites, she said, the barriers and inequities will persist.

“We need to have a system where the vaccines are coming to people where they live,” she said.

» READ MORE: Rite Aid gave 21 Philly vaccine doses to white people for every one it gave a Black person

With few low-tech options for vaccine registration and without a more targeted approach to reach seniors, some older Pennsylvanians have already given up on finding a vaccine. State Sen. Judy Ward, a Republican who represents several counties in central Pennsylvania, said older constituents have “just shut down,” overwhelmed by the patchwork system. State Rep. Frank Farry, a Bucks County Republican, said his mother gave up on making an appointment after registering on multiple websites with no success.

Rev. Marshall Mitchell, pastor of Salem Baptist Church, works to help his senior congregants from Montgomery County and Philadelphia get vaccine appointments. Last month, the Abington church partnered with Holy Redeemer Hospital to vaccinate 30 Black faith leaders, former pastors, and immunocompromised congregants. But many others are still searching.

“They are engaged in an Easter egg hunt called vaccination eligibility,” he said. “They are looking for a virtual shot in a haystack.”

Senior advocates say these hunts would be made easier by something simple: a central phone line.

“The answer isn’t just ‘well keep refreshing your browser’ for an 82-year-old,” said state Rep. Gary Day, a Republican from Berks and Lehigh Counties who chairs the committee on aging and older adult services.

While the Pennsylvania Department of Health does have a hotline for residents’ general concerns, it is not vaccine-specific and residents cannot sign up for appointments on it. The Department of Health said the 1-877-PA-HEALTH line is “staffed by public health professionals to assist the individuals directly to find a provider nearest them and assist with the efforts to contact the provider to schedule an appointment.”

Across the state, many providers require patients sign up online and communicate with them primarily over email. Some places, such as Rite Aid (which is supplied by a federal pharmacy partnership, not the state), post a limited number of new appointment slots in the middle of the night.

» READ MORE: These suburban Philly women hustled to get COVID-19 vaccination appointments for family. Now they’re helping strangers.

Johnston-Walsh, of AARP, and Buck, of SeniorLAW Center, attend regular meetings with senior groups and the Department of Health, where advocates push for better vaccine access for older Pennsylvanians.

Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam recently participated in an hourlong AARP telephone town hall, which was attended by 15,000 members, 650 of whom waited in the queue to ask questions, Johnston-Walsh said.

Johnston-Walsh said he believes Beam and others are listening to residents’ concerns.

But “I wish they’d move a little quicker,” he said. “I don’t think it’s rocket science to get a 1-800 number up and running.”

Some Pennsylvania counties have tried to fill the gap themselves.

In Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, people who are 65 and older and don’t have Internet access can make appointments by calling 211, noted Angela Foreshaw-Rouse, manager of state operations and community outreach at AARP Pennsylvania.

Chester County launched its own coronavirus call center a few weeks ago, as did neighboring Delaware County. While callers can’t sign up for appointments using it, officials have found that residents appreciate talking to a live person who can answer their questions and empathize with their anxiety.

“I think having a voice makes people feel better,” Chester County Commissioner Marian Moskowitz said.

Buck, of the Senior LAWCenter, said it’s bittersweet to read about the impact that vaccinations have already had on new cases and deaths in the country’s nursing homes, where new deaths and case counts have declined even more rapidly than in the general population.

“You can see: There are results. Vaccines work,” she said. But “the great majority of older people live in the community. They don’t live in long-term care facilities.”

Staff Writers Ellie Rushing, Justine McDaniel, and Allison Steele contributed to this article.