Online sign-ups complicate vaccine rollout for older people

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Howard Jones, an 83-year-old veteran, talks about his struggle to secure a COVID-19 vaccination in El Paso County while seated on the deck outside his home Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, in southwest Colorado Springs, Colo. Not having internet in his home, Jones ended up getting help from a friend to get an appointment for the vaccine in Colorado Springs. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

DENVER – Howard Jones, who's 83, was on the phone for three to four hours every day trying to sign up for a coronavirus vaccine.

Jones, who lives alone in Colorado Springs, doesn’t have the internet, and that's made it much more difficult for him to make an appointment. It took him about a week. He said the confusion has added to his anxiety about catching what could be a life-threatening disease at his age.

“It has been hell,” Jones said. “I’m 83 and to not have the use of a computer is just terrible.”

As states across the U.S. roll out the COVID-19 vaccine to people 65 and older, senior citizens are scrambling to figure out how to sign up to get their shots. Many states and counties ask people to make appointments online, but glitchy websites, overwhelmed phone lines and a patchwork of fast-changing rules are bedeviling older people who are often less tech-savvy, may live far from vaccination sites and are more likely to not have internet access at all, especially people of color and those who are poor.

Nearly 9.5 million seniors, or 16.5% of U.S. adults 65 and older, lack internet access, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Access is worse for seniors of color: more than 25% of Black people, about 21% of Hispanic people and over 28% of Native Americans 65 and older have no way to get online. That's compared with 15.5% of white seniors.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Dr. Rebecca Parish has been dismayed by the bureaucratic process and continued calls for help from seniors. One of her patients, who’s 83, called her in tears, unable to navigate the online appointment system at Rite Aid. A 92-year-old woman called her before dawn this week after reading about her in a newspaper, telling her, “I’ll do anything to get this vaccine.”

So Parish took things into her own hands. She reached out to Contra Costa County and acquired 500 doses to vaccinate people this weekend at a middle school in Lafayette, California. She's working with nonprofits to identify seniors who don’t live in nursing homes and risk falling through the cracks. All her appointments have been claimed, but she’ll start taking them again once more doses are available.

Some health officials have been trying to find other solutions to ease the confusion and help senior citizens sign up, just as the Trump administration urged states this week to make the nation’s 57.6 million seniors eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.