Seniors, among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus, have been eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines in Washington state since mid-January. But many who are part of that population may find it difficult or impossible to access technology and tools to track down doses.
Michele Roberts, who's leading COVID-19 vaccine planning and distribution at the state Department of Health (DOH), said the department is sharing information through area agencies on aging, senior centers, and other community partners to try to reach all people 65 and older.
Another key part of the equation: Ensuring phone lines at the state level and at local vaccine providers' sites can handle the flood of calls coming in.
"It's really multifaceted with a lot of different people working on it to ensure there's multiple ways people will know about how to get vaccine," she said at a press conference Tuesday.
Gov. Jay Inslee put some of the onus to help seniors navigate the system on family, friends, neighbors and others.
"It's like in any emergency, in an earthquake, or a mudslide at Oso — what I've learned is that a significant part of the rescue is by individuals, it's by us," he said. "It's taking care of our neighbors, our relatives, extending a hand."
Grandkids can help their grandparents, he said as an example. "This is a moment in time where all of us can step up and help people."
Guidance from the state
As of Jan. 25, providers had reported more than 545,000 doses of the vaccine given statewide.
But there are many more people eligible for the shot than there are doses coming in from the federal government, as Inslee has emphasized. Appointments fill up quickly.
He and other state officials urge patience, acknowledging that the struggle to find appointments is causing frustration.
To get an appointment, DOH points people to its online Phase Finder tool.
The tool doesn't schedule appointments but shows a list of vetted providers who have shared their information with DOH. A person can follow that provider's link for scheduling information.
The state also runs a "COVID-19 Assistance Hotline" (1-800-525-0127, then press #). The hotline has experienced "high volumes of calls" and continues to add staff to meet the need for assistance with the online scheduling tools.
Hotline capacity for helping people make appointments is focused on the state's four mass-vaccination sites in Benton, Clark, Chelan, and Spokane counties. Assistance for making appointments at those sites is available 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The hotline can also help people with Phase Finder, but anyone needing help making an appointment at a location other than those mass-vaccination sites will still need to contact the local provider directly.
As is the case throughout the state, limited appointment slots, overloaded phone lines and online forms have made signing up for a COVID-19 vaccine difficult for Thurston County seniors.
Limited supply and huge demand has forced thousands to wait, said Brian Windrope, executive director for Senior Services for South Sound.
"There have been limited ways you could get the vaccine, and seniors are experiencing real frustration with accessing that," Windrope said. "Even if you're with (health care provider) Kaiser (Permanente), you might have to try for weeks on end to get an appointment just because the system is overwhelmed."
To help, Windrope's non-profit is working with Thurston County Public Health and Social Services to set up and host vaccine clinics at its Olympia and Lacey Senior Centers as soon as possible.
But Windrope said his organization is still waiting on the county to determine when they can open the clinics and how many vaccine doses will be available, but he hopes each clinic can administer 150 vaccines a day.
Appointments at these two clinics will be scheduled through an online registration process, similarly to how the county scheduled appointments at Providence St. Peter Hospital's clinic in Olympia on Jan. 20.
"The public is not encouraged to show up," Windrope said. "That is not how this will work. We want there to be appointments so that people stay at home and stay warm and dry."
Windrope expects the vast majority of eligible seniors to be able to sign up via a link that will be released as soon as the county has it ready. The Olympian was unable to get further information from Thurston County Public Health and Social Services.
With more than 50,000 people 65 and older in Thurston County, the county and its myriad providers have a lot of work to do to vaccinate the eligible population.
"Even if not all of them get the vaccine ... it's going to take some time," Windrope said. "There are going to be people who want it today but don't get it for two or three weeks. There's no way around it."
Such is the case for Ada Beebe, a 63-year-old Lacey woman, and her 83-year-old husband. Beebe said she has so far not been able to schedule a COVID-19 vaccine appointment for her husband despite repeated attempts.
"It's very complicated," Beebe said. "It's very long. It's unfair, and hopefully they fix it pretty soon."
Beebe said she tried to sign up her husband for an appointment at Providence St. Peter Hospital via the online form, but she could not manage to secure an appointment despite her husband being eligible.
"They told us they don't have any openings for scheduling, so we gave up," Beebe said. "We checked other places and they say the same thing. We even went physically to some places to check it out."
Beebe herself is ineligible for the vaccine because she does not live in a multigenerational household and is still under 65. However, she is concerned she may be at risk given her situation and background.
"Being a Hispanic and being told so much about how African Americans and Hispanics are at higher risk, I approached them, and they go, 'No, because you are not 65,'" she told The Olympian.
Although she does not live with her grandchildren, she said one of them often visits and her daughter helps her care for her husband. For now, all they can do is wait.
Windrope said he is unsure how often the clinic his non-profit is planning can remain open because the county is itself unsure how many doses it may receive from the state on a weekly basis.
But he said his senior center will host clinics as long as there is still a need for doses in the community.
"We don't control the vaccine so it's up to the county, but as far as Senior Services for South Sound is concerned, we are going to keep the doors open for people with appointments," Windrope said. "As long as there's anyone who needs it."
Volunteers on the way
Windrope said his non-profit also is planning to mobilize volunteers to help seniors who may not be able to drive or have access to internet and phone service.
"Our volunteers will work together to make sure that all seniors can get to a vaccination site to get vaccinated," Windrope said. "Every barrier we can identify we're trying to remove that barrier to get every senior vaccinated who we can."
He said Senior Services for South Sound will be working to identify seniors who need help through the programs and services they already provide, as well as by communicating with local community leaders.
The non-profit will be able to drive some seniors to the vaccination sites by using a transportation program that regularly transports seniors to medical appointments.
"We have volunteers who transport seniors now and volunteers who do Meals on Wheels deliveries," Windrope said. "And Intercity Transit has stepped forward to partner closely with us to help seniors who live in their service area."
He said this vaccination drive will require a network of community partners working together.
"We've got a lot of work to do but we're only going to succeed based on partnership and hard work," Windrope said. "So far that's what I've seeing so I'm really encouraged by that."
Anyone interested in volunteering with Senior Services for South Sound can call 360-586-6181 extension 120.
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