NEW YORK, NY – For weeks, doctors’ phones have been ringing off the hook with anxious older patients on the other end of the line. “When can I get a covid-19 vaccine?” these patients want to know. “And where?”
Frustration and confusion are rampant as states and counties begin to offer vaccines to all seniors after giving them first to front-line health care workers and nursing home residents — the groups initially given priority by state and federal authorities.
My 91-year-old mother-in-law, who lives in upstate New York, was one of those callers. She said her doctor’s office told her it could be several months before she can get her first shot.
That was before New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Friday that the state would begin offering vaccines to residents age 75 and older starting Monday. On Tuesday, the state changed vaccine policies again, this time making residents 65 and older eligible.
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In this chaotic environment, with covid cases and deaths skyrocketing and distribution systems in a state of disarray, it’s difficult to get up-to-date, reliable information. Many older adults don’t know where to turn for help.
Since the holidays, I’ve heard from dozens of people frustrated by poorly informed staffers at physicians’ offices, difficult-to-navigate state and county websites, and burdensome or malfunctioning sign-up arrangements. Below are some questions they posed, with answers drawn from interviews with experts and other sources, that may prove helpful.
Keep in mind that states, counties and cities have varying policies, and this is a rapidly shifting landscape with many uncertainties. Foremost among them are questions regarding vaccine supply: how many doses will become available to states and when and how those will be allocated.
Q: How can I make an appointment to get a vaccine? — James Vanderhye, 77, Denver
Vanderhye is a throat cancer survivor who suffers from sarcoidosis of the lungs and heart — an inflammatory disease.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis announced on Dec. 30 that residents 70 and older could start getting covid vaccines, but Vanderhye wasn’t sure whether he needed to sign up somewhere or whether he’d be contacted by his physicians — a common source of confusion.
UCHealth, the system where Vanderhye’s doctors practice, has created a registry of patients 70 and older and is randomly selecting them for appointments, Dr. Jean Kutner, its chief medical officer told me. It’s reaching out to patients through its electronic patient portal and is planning to notify those who don’t respond by phone down the line. Then, it’s up to patients to finalize arrangements.
Nearly 200,000 people 70 and older are patients at UCHealth’s hospitals and clinics in Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska.
TIPS: Although some health systems such as UCHealth are contacting patients, don’t assume that will happen. In most cases, it appears, you will need to take the initiative.
Check with the physician’s office, hospital or medical clinic where you usually receive care. Many institutions (though not all) are posting information about covid vaccines on their websites. Some have set up phone lines.
Some health systems are willing to vaccinate anyone who signs up, not just their patients. Kaiser Permanente, which operates in California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Washington, D.C., and parts of Virginia and Maryland, is among them, according to Dr. Craig Robbins, co-leader of its national covid vaccination program. (Within the next few weeks, it will post an online registration tool on plan websites.) Check with major hospitals or health systems in your area to see what they’re doing. (KHN is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)
Most places are asking people to sign up online for appointments; some sites require multiple steps and their systems may seem hard to use. If you don’t have a computer or you aren’t comfortable using one, ask a younger family member, friend or neighbor for help. Similarly, ask for help if you aren’t fluent in English.
If you can’t figure out how to sign up online, call your local county health department, Area Agency on Aging or county department on aging and ask for assistance. Every state has a covid-19 hotline; see if the hotline can direct you to a call center that’s taking appointments. Be prepared for long waits; phone lines are jammed.
Q: My mother has stage 3 renal failure, high blood pressure and dementia. She’s unable to take care of herself or be left alone. When can I get her vaccinated with the COVID shot? — Wendy, 61, Chandler, Arizona
Wendy had checked Maricopa County’s website days before we talked on Jan. 5 and couldn’t figure out when her 84-year-old mother might get a vaccine appointment. The week before, her 90-year-old father died, alone, of renal failure complicated by pneumonia in a nursing home.
Three days after our conversation, Maricopa County announced that people 75 and older could start making appointments to be vaccinated on a “first-come, first-served” basis on Monday, Jan. 11. (The state’s appointment site is https://podvaccine.azdhs.gov/; callers should try 844-542-8201 or 211, according to information provided by the county.)
In Arizona, “it’s up to each county to come up and execute a plan for vaccine distribution,” said Dana Kennedy, state director of AARP Arizona.
Demand is high and vaccine supplies are limited, other places have found. For example, on Jan. 7, a 1,200-slot vaccine clinic in Oklahoma City for adults 65 and older filled up within four minutes, according to Molly Fleming, a public information officer at the Oklahoma City-County Health Department.
“Once we get more vaccine supplies coming more frequently, we will do more clinics,” Fleming said. “The challenge we have right now is, we need the vaccine and we don’t know when it’s coming in.”
TIPS: Consult AARP’s state-by-state covid vaccine guides, focused on older adults and updated daily. (To access, go to https://www.aarp.org/coronavirus/. In the right-hand column, click on “the vaccine in your state.”) More than 20 states are listed there now, but guides for all states should be available by the end of January.
Meanwhile, check local media and your county’s and state’s health department websites regularly for fresh information about covid vaccine distribution plans.
On Monday, for example, Washington, D.C., unveiled a new vaccination registration site for residents 65 and older and health care workers. The week before, Illinois announced it would extend vaccines to residents 65 and older when it moved into the next phase of its vaccination plan, and the city of Chicago followed suit. The timetable for those transitions remains unclear.
Be prepared to be patient as problems with distribution surface. States and counties around the country are learning from problems that have arisen in places such as Florida — crashed phone lines, long lines of older adults waiting outdoors, massive confusion. It may take some time, but vaccine rollouts should become smoother as more sites come online and supplies become more readily available.
Q: When can a 72-year-old male with chronic lymphocytic leukemia expect to be vaccinated at Kaiser Permanente in Southern California? — Barry
California last week announced that counties that have made significant progress and have adequate supplies can move toward offering vaccines to residents 75 and older.
How soon this will happen isn’t clear yet; it will vary by location. But even then, Barry wouldn’t qualify immediately since he’s only 72 and it could take several months for vaccines to become available to people in his age group (65 to 74), said Robbins, who’s helping lead Kaiser Permanente’s vaccination program.
Barry is at especially high risk of doing poorly if he develops covid because of the type of cancer he has — leukemia. But, for the most part, medical conditions are not being taken into account in the initial stages of vaccine distribution around the country.
An exception is the Mayo Clinic. It’s identifying patients at highest risk of getting severe infections, being hospitalized and dying from covid at the Mayo Clinic Health System, a network of physician practices, clinics and hospitals in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. When states allow older adults outside of long-term care institutions to start getting vaccines, it will offer them first to patients at highest risk, said Dr. Abinash Virk, co-chair for Mayo Clinic’s vaccine rollout.
TIPS: Even if vaccines aren’t available right away, production is increasing, new products are in the pipeline, and new ways of distributing vaccines — notably mass distribution sites — are being planned. If you have to wait several weeks or months, don’t give up. Persistence is worth the effort, given the vaccine’s benefits.
This story also ran KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.