Millions of older Americans are now eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
But limited supplies, overwhelmed scheduling systems and fragmented state-by-state distribution guidelines are making the search for a shot frustrating and time-consuming for many seniors and their families.
Some local churches and community groups are stepping in to help, but the need in many communities is pushing limited resources to the breaking point — and leaving millions of older, vulnerable residents unvaccinated.
A Disjointed Patchwork of Age Eligibility Rules
A major challenge for many seniors is the country’s fragmented approach to vaccine rollout.
When COVID-19 vaccines first became available in December 2020, a federal advisory group recommended that states give frontline health care workers and long-term care facility residents top vaccine priority during an initial phase known as priority 1a.
Over time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded its eligibility recommendations to include people 75 years and older, along with essential workers, in the second wave of vaccinations, or priority 1b.
This is where major variations emerged among states. Many governors and state health officials broke with CDC guidelines, resulting in notable state-by-state disparities.
As of Feb. 1, the District of Columbia and 29 states have included people ages 65 and older in their phase 1a or 1b priority groups, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Some states, such as Florida, did so back in December. Others, such as Hawaii, have kept the bar at ages 75 or older. States like Alabama and Connecticut only recently lowered the eligibility age from 75 to 65.
In Tennessee and Nevada, age distribution even varies by county.
These discrepancies have fueled uncertainty over who can get vaccinated and when. It also means many older Americans still haven’t received a shot.
Data from the 28 states that report COVID-19 vaccinations by age revealed that a majority of older adults have yet to receive at least one dose of the vaccine as of Feb. 4, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Vaccination rates are as high as 34 percent for West Virginia residents ages 65 and older and as low as 10 percent of seniors in Pennsylvania.
“A national strategy would certainly minimize the confusion that comes with messages that vary not only from state to state, but within states,” Tricia Neuman, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation and a co-author of the study, told RetireGuide. “In this situation, the differences across and within states contributes to unnecessary confusion among seniors.”
The race to vaccinate older Americans is propelled by a grim reality — seniors are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, accounting for the highest hospitalizations and death rates in the country.
According to the CDC, 8 out of 10 COVID-19 related deaths in the U.S. have occurred in adults ages 65 and older.
Struggling to Navigate Tech Issues and Find Vaccines
Claryse Flores of Union County, New Jersey, tried for weeks to maneuver a cumbersome maze of government and private provider appointment systems and get a vaccine for her mother, a 70-year-old asthmatic health care employee.
Flores said she registered her mom at NJ.gov in early January but never received any communication back.
When she called Union County’s COVID-19 vaccine helpline and explained the situation, Flores said she was told, “Everyone had a story.” She was instructed to keep refreshing the Union County vaccine page for appointment cancellations.
“It wasn’t very helpful advice,” Flores told RetireGuide.
She hit additional roadblocks trying to book appointments at New Jersey’s six mass vaccination sites. She sent emails to state and federal representatives, but to no avail.
Finally, Flores stumbled across a Twitter account that alerts followers about last-minute available vaccine appointments in New Jersey.
“I turned on all my alerts for my Twitter account,” Flores said. “Every time I heard a beep, I’d rush to my computer and head to my Union County vaccine site.”
Finally, on Feb. 7, Flores was able to book an appointment at Kean University for her mother.
“If it hadn’t been for Twitter, my mother would still be without an appointment,” Flores said. “But how many seniors have a Twitter account?”
Flores’ experience isn’t unique. Efforts to vaccinate older Americans are often beleaguered by inconsistent online scheduling systems and scarce vaccine doses.
In Pittsburgh, hospitals, pharmacies, clinics and the county health department were forced to develop separate management systems to register people for the vaccine.
It led to jammed phone lines and crashed computer servers at medical centers and pharmacies, fanning widespread frustration from providers and residents alike, according to a report by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Administrative complexity has made it unnecessarily complicated and confusing for seniors who are trying to get appointments.
“Administrative complexity has made it unnecessarily complicated and confusing for seniors who are trying to get appointments,” said Neuman, who also serves as a Medicare policy expert. “There’s a digital divide that favors younger seniors over older ones, healthier seniors over sicker ones and higher income seniors over lower income seniors … Some of the computer systems are challenging even for tech-savvy seniors.”
New York’s state health department website has repeatedly crashed or shut people out of the registration process since it expanded availability to senior citizens in January.
State officials said the site will likely get overwhelmed again starting Feb. 15 when New York expands eligibility to residents ages 16 and older with specific comorbidities and approved underlying conditions.
“This will not be perfect,” Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa said during a Feb. 8 COVID-19 briefing in Albany, New York. “There are going to be problems … It’s going to be a tough period here.”
That’s frustrating news for residents like Ellen Bevan, 76, of Rochester, who is still waiting for a vaccine despite exhaustive daily efforts to find one.
“I’ve been working on this for weeks — and I’m not computer stupid,” Bevans told RetireGuide.
As an older diabetic chemotherapy patient, eligibility isn’t an issue for Bevan. She’s qualified for a vaccine as part of New York’s 1b priority group since Jan. 11.
“There’s just no supply,” Bevan said. “People are trying their best to help you, but the supply doesn’t seem to be here.”
New York has relied heavily on local providers — including hospitals, pharmacies, urgent care centers and county health departments — to administer the vaccine.
But as a Jan. 24 report by The Buffalo News points out, many of these providers have been left in the dark. They’ve received poor communication and coordination from state and regional officials, including lengthy lags between vaccine requests and approvals.
I was driving myself crazy going to every website I can think of every day … I’d try for four or six hours a day sometimes.
Technical glitches plagued many New York provider websites in the beginning. But even weeks later, Bevan and her daughter have been unable to find an appointment within 300 miles of Rochester.
“I was driving myself crazy going to every website I can think of every day, including every pharmacy in town. I’d try for four or six hours a day sometimes,” Bevan said. “Even my oncologist can’t help me find a vaccine. When I try to call different hotlines, I spend an hour on the phone just to get a machine or a busy signal at the end.”
Some states, including New Mexico and West Virginia, have streamlined their digital signup process.
These state governments have launched integrated online vaccination portals that connect providers with available doses while managing appointments with registered residents eligible for the vaccine.
But even in areas where technology is easier to navigate, vaccine supply is often extremely limited.
Since vaccine distribution began in December, only about 9.7 percent of the total U.S. population has received a dose, according to federal data collected by the CDC and analyzed by NPR.
The federal government is shipping more doses to states every week. On Feb. 2, the Biden administration pledged to increase overall, weekly state COVID-19 vaccine shipments to 10.5 million doses — a 22 percent increase since Jan. 20.
Biden has also introduced the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to Congress, a sweeping proposal that includes $160 billion in funding for — among other things — a national vaccination program, expanded testing, mobile community vaccination sites and a public health jobs program.
The news doesn’t provide much comfort to Bevan, who said she’s tired of patiently waiting to get a lifesaving vaccine.
“A few of my friends have managed to get one as a fluke by showing up at the end of the day when a pharmacy happened to have some leftover supply,” she said. “But I haven’t been that lucky. I don’t have a magic wand to wave. At this point, it feels like I need one just to get a shot.”
Community Efforts Attempt to Expand Vaccine Access
Some experts believe the government should better utilize senior centers and community organizations to help reach older adults who may struggle to overcome technology or transportation barriers.
In Detroit, the city health department recently partnered with two prominent Black churches to host vaccination fairs for residents ages 65 and up as part of a “Senior Saturdays” effort. Officials expect to vaccinate about 1,000 older residents in a single day at the event.
Staff at the Rappahannock Senior Center in Castleton, Virginia, are calling members to explain the COVID-19 vaccine appointment process and coordinate rides with volunteers to vaccine sites.
In Osceola County, Florida, just south of Orlando, the health department has joined forces with a local pharmacy to help get homebound seniors vaccinated.
Starting Feb. 8, people who believe they may be eligible for an at-home vaccination can request their home health provider to arrange an appointment with Prescriptions Unlimited.
“These are people who have multiple underlying health conditions and weakened immune systems, and they have home health care workers coming in and out of their homes that may expose them to the virus,” Jeremy Lanier, public information officer for the state health department in Osceola County, told RetireGuide.
Lanier, who is also a long-time volunteer with the Osceola Council on Aging, said the health department had received numerous inquiries from family members of elderly residents unable to leave their homes due to mobility issues.
“We started to brainstorm ideas on how to get vaccines to these individuals,” Lanier said. Prescriptions Unlimited, a long-time COVID-19 testing site partner, stepped up to help.
According to Prescriptions Unlimited Owner Eric Larson, the company received “well over” 300 inquiries just three days after the partnership was announced.
The group had administered about 100 shots as of Feb. 9.
“Needless to say, we are going to run out of our 200 vaccine per week allotment soon,” Larson told RetireGuide.