The world has been a scary place for many over the past year, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. But people like Judith Green and Bernice Harris had much more to fear not just because of the virus’ high mortality rate, but also because they’re senior citizens.
More than 340,000 people older than 65 have died from complications related to COVID-19 in the United States since the pandemic started, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That represents nearly 80 percent of the country’s total death toll.
The disease presented a profound risk to the elderly, leading many to sigh in relief when seniors became eligible for the coronavirus vaccine last month. But in addition to vaccine shortages, it’s proving more difficult than expected to vaccinate the city’s older population numbering more than 1.2 million.
Selina Ng gets phone calls every day from seniors asking for help to register for the vaccine. A shortage of vaccine supplies isn’t helping, and the RSS-Riverdale Senior Services social worker says her clients are finding it difficult to even find an opening to get their first dose — whether they’re registering online or over the phone.
“It’s very, very hard to navigate, wait for hours and hours, and they keep on saying, ‘Please log back in and check again,’” Ng said.
“I had somebody waiting (on the phone) for six hours. And then they wind up saying that they don’t have any availability.”
Even when vaccine appointments are available — and more could be in the borough, thanks to a mass vaccination site opening at Yankee Stadium — the online process is proving difficult for many seniors to navigate. Seniors might not be as technologically adept as younger generations, and the process to register for a coronavirus vaccine is largely online.
According to Eric Dinowitz, chair of Community Board 8’s aging committee, the decision to make vaccine registration an online endeavor puts some seniors at more of a disadvantage than others.
“If you’re an older adult with a kid or a grandkid who can help make an appointment for you, you’re in a better position than those without children,” he said. “There are so many seniors for whom it is challenging to make an appointment. The online system is a mess.”
But even when the vaccine appointments are available and the city’s senior citizens successfully register for them, things can still go wrong. Appointments can get canceled, whether due to supply shortages or inclement weather, meaning they’ll have to go through the registration process all over again.
Green was ultimately successful in registering for her first dose of the vaccine at the Jacob K. Javits Center in Hell’s Kitchen. But before that, she’d registered at a branch of Mount Sinai Hospital — which had to cancel vaccine appointments due to low supply.
Green was frustrated because when her original vaccine appointment was canceled, no one called her back to reschedule. But she thinks her ordeal registering for the vaccine paled in comparison to other seniors.
“I was getting very anxious trying to find appointments,” Green said. “I’ve heard that there were people who were going on, continually trying to get appointments — seniors who have very little experience with computers and websites. It’s really terrible that we all have to go through this.”
For Harris, however, traveling to another borough to get the vaccine just isn’t an option. She’s disabled, and thinks there should be more local vaccination sites to accommodate seniors like her who can’t get very far from her home.
“How could they leave our whole area with like no resources to get a shot?” Harris asked.
According to the city’s online database, there are only two local vaccination sites: Montefiore Marble Hill Family Practice on Broadway and Rite Aid on Knolls Crescent. There are no vaccination sites listed within the 10471 ZIP code.
But there might be another way to get seniors vaccinated. At the beginning of the pandemic, the city dispatched local senior centers like RSS and The Riverdale Y to make emergency food deliveries to seniors. Both Dinowitz and Ng think something similar can be done with vaccine outreach.
“I think it would be great if there was … a dedicated hotline to senior centers, that we could just call them directly and say, ‘We’re calling from the senior center, we’re representing people in the community, and here’s a person who needs (the vaccine). Can you put them on the list?” Ng said. “Or even like this system … where the senior center could schedule the appointments, so we have a little more control over knowing how to navigate it.”
Dinowitz joined others from CB8 in a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio asking him to utilize local senior centers in the effort to get older residents vaccinated. And to him, the infrastructure already exists in the emergency food delivery program — which leaves only a few steps to weave the senior centers into the vaccination process.
“I think the senior centers can play a vital role in ensuring our older adults get vaccinated,” Dinowitz said. “The city allowed senior centers to set up meal deliveries shortly into the pandemic, which made getting food much easier for our seniors who desperately needed these meal deliveries. And there’s no reason why they can’t set up a similar system for vaccinations.”