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Seniors seeking vaccines have a problem: They can’t use the internet

The digital divide between generations has always been stark, but the pandemic’s abrupt curtailing of in-person interactions has made that division even more apparent

March 01, 2021 / 01:45 PM IST
FILE — An 81-year-old woman isolating at home early on in the coronavirus outbreak uses her laptop in her backyard in Bellevue, Wash., March 24, 2020. Older adults living alone often lack access or an understanding of technology, and many are unsure how to sign up for a vaccine appointment. (Christian Sorensen Hansen/The New York Times)

FILE — An 81-year-old woman isolating at home early on in the coronavirus outbreak uses her laptop in her backyard in Bellevue, Wash., March 24, 2020. Older adults living alone often lack access or an understanding of technology, and many are unsure how to sign up for a vaccine appointment. (Christian Sorensen Hansen/The New York Times)

Kellen Browning

Annette Carlin feels trapped.

Before the pandemic, Carlin, who is 84, loved to go on walks in Novato, California, with her grandchildren and dance at the senior center. Since March, though, she has been stuck indoors. She has been eager to sign up for a vaccine and begin returning to normal life.

But booking an appointment has been a technological nightmare. Carlin cannot afford to buy a computer and would not know how to navigate the internet in search of a shot even if she could. While members of her family might be able to help her there, she avoids seeing them as a safety precaution.

“It’s very frustrating,” Carlin said on her flip phone. “I feel like everybody else got the vaccine, and I didn’t.”

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A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

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There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

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Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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The chaotic vaccine rollout has come with a maze of confusing registration pages and clunky health care websites. And the technological savvy required to navigate the text alerts, push notifications and email reminders that are second nature to the digital generation has put older adults like Carlin, who need the vaccine the most, at a disadvantage. As a result, seniors who lack tech skills are missing out on potentially lifesaving shots.

The digital divide between generations has always been stark, but the pandemic’s abrupt curtailing of in-person interactions has made that division even more apparent.

Advocates for older Americans, 22 million of whom lack wired broadband access at home, say it is ridiculous that a program mostly aimed at vaccinating vulnerable seniors is so dependent on internet know-how, Twitter announcements and online event pages.

“We’re running into a crisis where connectivity is a life-or-death alternative for people,” said Tom Kamber, executive director of Older Adults Technology Services, a nonprofit that trains seniors to use technology. “It couldn’t get much more stark than people being told, ‘If you go outside, you’re likely to be at risk of dying.’”

People in nursing homes, among the first to get vaccines, had staff to assist them. But when vaccines became available to a wider group of older adults in late December and early January, many who lived alone had to navigate the rollout by themselves.

Federal agencies like the Administration for Community Living, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as nonprofits say they are doing what they can to guide older adults, but they are stretched thin. (Seniors can call the Administration for Community Living’s Eldercare Locator number for assistance at 1-800-677-1116.)

“I don’t know where to go,” said Cheyrl Lathrop, a 74-year-old resident of Richmond, Virginia, who has watched younger, more tech-literate people nearby find ways to be vaccinated. “I get frustrated with the computer, and then I just give up.”

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Some seniors are relying on younger relatives to browse websites and stay up at all hours in hopes of booking a slot. Lathrop’s daughter, Sheri Blume, got her mother an appointment after weeks of searching.

Terez Mays-Jones of Alpharetta, Georgia, had a similar experience looking for shots in Cincinnati, where her 73-year-old mother, Jacqueline Sims, lives.

“It became a secondary job,” Mays-Jones, 53, said. “I was doing all these searches at all times of the day and evening.”

Sims knows her way around Facebook and Instagram but still sometimes relies on her daughter for help online and said older adults often felt “intimidated” by technology.

“At our age, we’re not used to making so many mistakes, or we don’t want to admit to our mistakes,” said Sims, who eventually secured a shot thanks to a tip from a cousin.

Plenty of seniors do feel comfortable texting, tweeting and surfing the internet. But for those who do not, taking the time to learn a new skill often feels daunting, Kamber said. Older Adults Technology Services has taught 48,000 people how to get started online since the pandemic began, he said, and operates a tech support hotline. When vaccine sign-ups began, staff on the phones fielded thousands of questions about how to book appointments.

Area Agencies on Aging, part of a national aging network funded by the federal government and overseen by the Administration for Community Living, are also helping out. Local chapters have been calling seniors and helping them register for vaccine appointments over the phone or in person, said Sandy Markwood, chief executive of the Area Agencies, which include more than 600 nonprofit regional centers that are guided by state governments.

In Akron, Ohio, 78-year-old Lee Freund said every hospital, pharmacy and grocery store she had called in search of a vaccine directed her to a series of confusing webpages. Freund managed to accidentally sign up for grocery delivery but had no luck wrangling a shot. She ended up in tears.

“When you’re alone, it’s frustrating, it’s overwhelming, and it’s very emotional,” said Freund, whose husband died last year. She said she did not call her children for help because she did not want to be a burden. “It almost made me think, ‘I don’t think that this is worth it.’”

Freund finally found help with the nearby Area Agency on Aging, where a woman secured her an appointment.

As of Thursday, about 24 million Americans ages 65 and older, or about 41%, had received at least one coronavirus vaccine dose, according to population and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., who has reintroduced a bill from last year that would allocate money to help get older Americans online, said the government had failed to get out ahead of a preventable crisis by not funding senior agencies sooner.

Aging-network organizations “have been overwhelmed by the needs and the demands that they have and are struggling themselves working through the pandemic,” Smith said in an interview. “We have underresourced this, and we are seeing the effects of it.”

The coronavirus relief bill passed by the House includes $470 million for supportive services for older Americans, including vaccine outreach. The Administration for Community Living is working with the CDC on a public awareness campaign for seniors, said Edwin Walker, the group’s deputy assistant secretary for aging. But that initiative is still in the planning stage.

In the meantime, volunteer groups have popped up to help. In Miami, Katherine Quirk and her fiance, Russ Schwartz, started a Facebook group in January to disseminate information about vaccine availability in their area. The group has ballooned into 27,000 members seeking help and offering tips, and the effort has helped thousands get vaccinated.

“It’s amazing, overwhelming,” said Quirk, 44, a nurse. “We’ve been called vaccine angels.”

For those still waiting for their shot, though, hope seems far away. In Novato, Carlin spends her time watching the news on television in case there is a mention of where to get a shot. A granddaughter has been trying to find one for her, but without success.

“I’m used to getting out and going and going and doing everything,” she said. If she were vaccinated, “I could go on with life, but now I feel like I’m on hold.”

c.2021 The New York Times Company

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New York Times
first published: Mar 1, 2021 01:45 pm

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