Advocates for seniors say rollout is difficult to navigate
The good news is that on Jan. 18 Connecticut residents over age 75 became eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines under the second phase of the state’s vaccination program.
The bad news, for many senior citizens in this age group, is that the process of scheduling an appointment to get their shot can be extremely difficult.
Social services agents in the Northwest Corner said they are inundated with calls from frustrated and discouraged seniors who are unable to navigate the web-based, self-scheduling portal or to reach someone on the phone at Connecticut’s COVID Vaccine Appointment Assistance Line due to high call volume.
“This is a unique challenge to residents age 75 and older who do not communicate via electronic devices and email. It’s created quite a problem. Very few can actually do it on their own,” said Miriam Jones, Sharon’s social services agent, referring to the complicated and confusing registration system.
“These are people who are going to need a lot of hand-holding. A lot of them are calling me saying they don’t know what to do,” said Jones, who created her own database of Sharon residents age 75 and older and has been making phone calls to see if family or friends can help seniors with registration.
“So far I’ve registered 30 residents,” she reported just days after the rollout.
“It’s a huge burden on social services agents,” said Jones, who added that it would be “a huge help if local doctors’ offices, or someone at the VNA, can make appointments for them, or at least get them registered, and just have them go to Sharon Hospital” for the shot.
Answering calls for help
Across the Northwest Corner, advocates for seniors said their phones have been ringing off the hook since last week when Gov. Ned Lamont announced that an estimated 277,000 state residents age 75 and older are now eligible to receive vaccines. It is estimated that 1.3 million state residents, including frontline essential workers (325,000 individuals) and residents and staff of congregate settings (50,000 individuals) are also eligible for Phase 1B.
Some social services workers fear that the state’s elders —many of whom lack computer skills, internet access or email addresses needed to register online — will be left behind, especially as additional vaccination roll-outs for younger, more tech-savvy residents take place in the coming weeks. Even seniors who routinely use computers find the process daunting, they said.
Kent’s social worker, Leah Pullaro, said town officials have been “getting hit” with calls from residents seeking registration help. On Tuesday morning after the Martin Luther King holiday, nine phone messages were waiting for her, Pullaro said, and she heard from another half dozen residents before noon. “There is more to it than giving them a phone number,” said Pullaro.
“There are a lot of questions; it’s just so new. Transportation issues are going to start cropping up. Some people have reached a point where it’s unsafe for them to drive; what are we going to do about them? Or the homebound? There has got to be some really out-of-the-box thinking going on with that type of planning,” Pullaro noted. “There are quite a few things we have to bridge to get it out fairly to everybody.”
Email and phone help lines
Individuals with internet access, a computer and email can enroll online through the web-based Vaccine Administration Management System (VAMS). A form to schedule an appointment can be found at www.ct.gov/covidvaccine/access. Numerous health-care providers are also participating in the vaccination program and will contact some patients to set up appointments. Those without access to a computer can call the CT COVID Vaccine Appointment Assist Line at 877-918-2224.
To complicate matters, only one online registration can be made for each email address, and user names and passwords must also be created. Pullaro said last week she was in the process of sending out “a giant mailing here in Kent to all seniors who are registered voters,” with detailed instructions.
MaryBeth Wabrek, North Canaan’s social services agent, said she spent an entire morning on the phone last week with various town officials as well as representatives of the local pharmacy discussing problems with the vaccine rollout.
“Walgreens has been inundated with calls, and they are referring North Canaan residents to me,” said Wabrek, who said she spent a good chunk of last week helping seniors schedule their shots.
Walgreens is offering vaccines at their North Canaan and Torrington locations; registration must be done online at www.walgreens.com/topic/covid19vac/CT.jsp.
“Although I can’t register anyone, I can walk them through putting their info into the VAMS system,” she explained. One caller who was not yet 75 years old couldn’t understand why she kept getting kicked out of the system, Wabrek said. “It’s crazy, and I suspect it is going to get more so, especially with this population.”
Some people want to wait and see
Social services agents in Cornwall, Falls Village and Salisbury recounted similar experiences.
“A mixed bag” is how Theresa Snyder Graney, social services director for Falls Village, described the array of concerns and questions among the town’s senior citizens regarding the COVID-19 vaccine. She has offered to help residents create email accounts in order to register for the vaccine, but several have refused. Some seniors are reluctant to get the shot and prefer to wait “to see how it goes with others,” and some want to talk it over with their children, or wait for a clinic closer to home, said Graney.
The Falls Village official said her primary vehicle for disseminating information is by calling people. She noted that a recent grant allowed for the purchase of several iPads once the pandemic struck, so that senior center members could stay in touch via texting and Facetime “but I was disappointed that many went unused.”
‘People start to panic’
Those who lack skills with computers have only one other way to set up a vaccine appointment: by phone. But the phone system, said Lisa McAuliffe, director of recreation and senior services in Salisbury, has been overloaded, and even though there is an option to leave a call-back number, “It’s taking more than 24 hours to get a call back, and people start to panic.”
Heather Dinneen, Cornwall’s social services director, said seniors should not hesitate to contact her if they are having difficulty booking a vaccination appointment, getting a ride or have questions. “We don’t know they need help if they don’t ask.”
Dinneen and other advocates said they are advising residents to be patient as the new vaccination roll out works through its kinks, and are encouraging family members and friends to help seniors with online registration whenever possible.
More difficult in rural areas
Although Connecticut ranks number five nationally in the percentage of population that have been vaccinated so far, state and local officials said COVID-19 has put a spotlight on the many challenges that older adults — including those homebound or with serious mobility or health issues — face when it comes to access to health care. Virtual medicine has been helpful during the pandemic, but it cannot deliver vaccines.
State Rep. Maria Horn (D-64) said she is aware of the vaccination disarray as it affects the state’s most vulnerable residents. The online registration process, she said, “is punishingly confusing to people. It doesn’t make sense, for instance, in distinguishing between validation and registration. It’s a real problem.”
Making sure that all residents, including the homebound, are able to get to their appointments, she said, is another concern. “In the rural areas, it’s always difficult, as it was with testing. This is no different.”
Horn noted that all state and municipal leaders and seniors’ advocates need to make sure that the most vulnerable residents are signed up “before the flood-gates open to the next tranche, of 65-plus residents” and appointments get snatched up. “We should be setting aside some appointments and availability for this group.”
The state representative said she is seeking answers and a “more synchronized” approach to the problems.
“We need more mobile vaccinations,” said Horn, referring to the need for hyper-local clinics similar to the system used to bring mobile COVID-19 testing to residents.
“We have gone through this battle with testing,” she said.
Advance registration, no drop-ins
Currently, the closest vaccine clinics for Northwest Corner residents are Sharon Hospital, the two Walgreens stores, the Torrington Area Health District and at a vaccination site operated by the High Watch Recovery Center in downtown Kent in space donated by Kent Barns.
All require advance registration.
Numerous health-care providers are also participating in the vaccination program; a list is available online at www.ct.gov/covidvaccine.
High Watch Recovery Center announced last week its plan to open the vaccination site at donated space in Kent Barns in the center of the village. To schedule appointments, individuals must register online at https://dphsubmissions.ct.gov/OnlineVaccine. Those without online access can call 877-918-2224.
The clinic is operated by High Watch employees and volunteers, according to Jason Perillo, vice president for communications. “As we worked to get our own health-care providers registered for vaccinations, we realized there weren’t a lot of options in the Northwest Corner,” he said in a press release. “This gives folks who live and work in the area a more convenient option.”
Sharon Hospital is urging those eligible for a vaccine not to contact the hospital or medical practices directly, but to visit the state website or call the Connecticut COVID-19 Vaccine Appointment Assist Line, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Nuvance Health locations will be listed in the Vaccine Administration Management System (VAMS) and are only available for those who schedule an appointment.
Vaccines for part-time residents
In the Northwest Corner, of course, many over-75 residents live part of the year in New York City and part in Connecticut. So far, even those who have been living here full-time but still have New York City identification, have been told by Walgreens that they can’t get the vaccine here, because it’s reserved for Connecticut residents.
Meanwhile, some part-time residents have been able to get shots here while others, even though they seem to be full-time Connecticut residents, got their shots in New York City (which at press time had run out of vaccine).
One town official said it’s unclear why some part-time residents are able to get their shots here while others aren’t; he said it’s possible that it’s related to voter registration, but he hasn’t been able to get an answer. Calls were made to state officials and health-care officials and no one seemed to know the answer.
Eventually, as with so many things in COVID-19, it’s likely that there will be enough for everyone. But the waiting is difficult, frightening and extremely frustrating.
Kent’s Leah Pullaro said patience and a positive attitude will eventually pay off.
“Technology surely will be a hindrance for some folks, but we will be able to get everybody a vaccination. 2021 is going to be all about the vaccine.”