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Computer divide among the barriers keeping elderly from getting COVID-19 vaccines

It’s easy to forget there is an entire generation among us, maybe two, who never had to join the computer age. Now, we expect them to go online to register and find their shots?

Davetta Brooks, who is helping her neighbors hunt for COVID-19 vaccine appointments, thinks health officials should create vaccination sites in senior residential buildings.
Davetta Brooks, who is helping her neighbors hunt for COVID-19 vaccine appointments, thinks health officials should create vaccination sites in senior residential buildings.
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Myra Reisman, 86, of Rogers Park still drives and does her own grocery shopping.

She walks with a cane because of a bad knee but doesn’t consider herself disabled. She has high blood pressure but doesn’t regard herself as medically vulnerable.

Reisman would very much like to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but she doesn’t own a computer and has been unable to find an appointment despite her best efforts. Her daughter tries every day to help her.

“I’m very nervous about it, very upset actually,” Reisman told me. “I feel like somebody lost my registration.”

It’s easy to forget there is an entire generation among us, maybe two generations, who never had to join the computer age.

They have been able to live productive, independent lives without knowing the first thing about using a computer, let alone owning one. Others in their age group might know just enough to check their email.

And now we are telling them they are welcome to sign up for the COVID-19 vaccine, encouraging them, because we recognize they are the most in need. All they have to do is go online to register and compete against more computer-savvy citizens to nab an appointment.

Good luck.

It’s a flaw that won’t necessarily be rectified by increased vaccine supplies, though I expect more vaccine will solve a lot of problems. For a significant portion of the elderly, though, more vaccine won’t solve anything.

They need an appointment system that’s easier to navigate and, in some cases, a system that will bring the vaccine to them instead of making them go to the vaccine.

“There are more people who don’t have computers,” Reisman said. “What do they do? What if they don’t have children to help them?”

Bob Gallo, state director of AARP Illinois, said a computer sign-up system isn’t enough.

“It’s got to be a phone system that’s properly staffed,” he said. “And then to make them an appointment as close as possible to where these individuals reside.”

And have people available with language skills to help those who don’t speak English, he said.

I wrote about my experience getting vaccinated at Cook County’s Tinley Park site. Some readers were surprised to learn the county was offering an appointment helpline — (833) 308-1988.

It’s not easy to get through, but some found it very helpful. We need more of that.

I realize a phone system is less efficient in some respects, but never underestimate the value of human interaction.

I felt better the first few times I reached someone on the helpline even though I was told to try again in a few days. When you run into a dead end online, you never know if you’re doing something wrong or dealing with a computer glitch.

Davetta Brooks, 75, is among many who believe government needs to bring the vaccine to where the old people live. Brooks is a cancer survivor with health problems that have limited her vision and landed her in a wheelchair. She rarely leaves home to see a doctor, relying on a mobile service that comes to her building.

Brooks is a member of the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, which is urging officials to designate CHA senior buildings as vaccination sites and go door-to-door within those buildings to reach elderly residents with mobility problems.

Brooks thinks the same policy should be extended to privately owned senior housing such as the Congressman George W. Collins Apartments, 1401 S. Blue Island Ave., the Section 8 building where she lives.

Such an approach also would help overcome racial inequities in the vaccine rollout.

For low-income seniors especially, the current vaccine system is a non-starter, Brooks said, especially when streets and sidewalks are covered with snow and ice.

“You might as well ask us to walk on water,” she said.

Brooks, who is more tech-savvy than many of her neighbors, has taken on the responsibility of trying to help get them vaccine appointments.

Eventually, the vaccine also will need to reach elderly residents shut up in their two-flats and bungalows, Brooks said.

But the first step is to recognize the problem.