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Seniors Are Among The 1st To Get Vaccines But The Process Has Glitches

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Millions of Americans over the age of 65 qualify for a COVID vaccine, but the process of signing up has been an ordeal. Will Stone has more.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Many seniors are finding the road to a vaccine shot is littered with dead ends, wrong turns and frustration. Eighty-five-year-old Colleen Brooks lives on an island near Seattle.

COLLEEN BROOKS: I mean, I knew it was here someplace. It wasn't easy to find out.

STONE: Brooks had gone online, but it was overwhelming. Then she got a tip from a friend.

BROOKS: Our pharmacy's right in the middle of town, and she saw them unloading boxes of it.

STONE: Unsure of what to do. She showed up at the clinic on a whim. She just happened to score a shot.

BROOKS: I actually personally know several seniors who just kind of gave up.

STONE: In Washington, D.C., Helen Franckie, who's 92, did find the online portal to sign up, only to discover...

HELEN FRANCKIE: It was evident that I was much too slow.

STONE: Spots filled up in no time.

FRANCKIE: It's terribly competitive, clearly favors those with advanced computer skills.

STONE: The next week, she tried calling at the designated time. The lines were jammed. A neighbor got online to help - same story. Franckie ended up finally getting a shot after her neighborhood listserv directed her to a hospital.

FRANCKIE: But if I had had to depend on the D.C. vaccination website and telephone, I'd still be anxious and unsuccessful.

STONE: And in Arizona, Miguel Lerma is trying to help his 69-year-old mother, who doesn't speak much English.

MIGUEL LERMA: My mom does not know how to use email. She barely got iPhone this year.

STONE: No one reached out to her about the vaccine. And Lerma says by the time she learned to go online, slots were booked through February. Her husband, Lerma's father, died from COVID last year.

LERMA: So she's mourning not only, like, for my dad, but she's also suffering as an adult now because she depended on certain tasks for him. He would handle all this.

STONE: Who, when and how to get a shot depends on where you live. This patchwork and shortage of supply means widespread chaos in many places.

BILL WALSH: You know, it's unconscionable that we can't do better.

STONE: That's Bill Walsh with AARP. He thinks public health outreach should include flyers, mail, phone calls and physical locations, like senior centers.

WALSH: Who am I trying to reach here? Because just posting a website and urging people go there is not a recipe for success.

STONE: Philip Bretsky, a primary care doctor in Southern California, says his older patients are struggling with the digital scheduling system there.

PHILIP BRETSKY: That's not how 85-year-olds have interacted with the health care system. So it's a complete disconnect.

STONE: Many are calling Bretsky for help, except he doesn't know what to tell them. He's approved to give the shot but has no clue when that will be possible.

BRETSKY: These folks are basically just investing a lot of time and not getting anything out of it.

STONE: Some states are moving slower in order to focus on the very oldest residents. But the majority have now opened it up to anyone over 65. In New York City, Jeremy Novich, a psychologist, started an informal help service for seniors. It began with a few synagogues, a Facebook post.

JEREMY NOVICH: We have a huge number of requests that are just piling up of people who are, like, really desperate.

STONE: His voicemail is filled with messages from people who are blind, handicapped, terrified they'll miss their chance.

NOVICH: You can't have the vaccine distribution be a race between elderly people typing and younger people typing. That's not a race. That's just cruel.

STONE: Novich says they've assisted more than 100 people but had to stop for now. It was impossible to keep up.

For NPR News, I'm Will Stone.

INSKEEP: That story is from NPR's partnership with Kaiser Health News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKLAS PASCHBURG'S "FRAGMENTATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.