As the pandemic rages nationwide, states have made most COVID-19 vaccination appointments available on digital platforms, rendering registration difficult for the demographic that needs vaccines the most: the elderly.
Throughout the pandemic, those over 50 have been one of the groups at the highest risk for hospitalization, extreme illness and death due to COVID-19. As vaccine rollouts are well underway, however, many states require residents to register for vaccination appointments online, generally hindering accessibility for the elderly. Such an approach has laid bare the “tech gap” for the elderly, many of whom do not have high internet literacy. The near-universal use of often dysfunctional online-only vaccine registration systems is the pinnacle of age-based inequity. To remedy that failure, states need to streamline online vaccine registration, educate the public on using it and invest in more accessible alternatives, like mail-in and phone registrations.
As the elderly scramble to decipher their state’s rules and sign-ups for vaccinations, they often find that some health agencies aren’t keeping their websites up to date with the proper information or infrastructure needed to effectively roll out vaccines. This has led to websites that often crash and fail to update current protocol or time slots, making an already stressful situation worse. Suboptimal conditions have thus forced older individuals to anxiously and hawkishly monitor websites on the off-chance they may nab an appointment. Many were left confused by faulty websites and either assume they’re not eligible to receive the vaccine or surrender in frustration.
Recently, Sarasota County seniors in Florida have raised concerns and shared their struggles of trying to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine appointment. Connie McManus, who is 91 years old, said that it would have been impossible for her to obtain one of the coveted appointments without the help of her granddaughter. McManus is a lucky one — not everyone has tech savvy family members to register for them. She further highlighted that many of her acquaintances have given up on being vaccinated after already experiencing too many obstacles. Currently, adults 65 and older account for 80% of COVID-19 deaths. With almost 22 million seniors without broadband access at home, the current COVID-19 vaccine distribution process is impractical.
The age-based technology gap is even more pronounced for those in low-income and rural areas. The absence of the phone lines, devices and internet connection necessary to sign up make an already inaccessible process impossible to navigate. And most of those 65 and older who do manage to traverse the process are wealthy and white, even though lower-income and BIPOC suffer from COVID-19 more often and more intensely. For instance, in Washington D.C., 40% of the city’s initial 7,000 appointments designated for the senior community were filled by the wealthy and white, leaving D.C.’s large minority population behind. States must change the distribution system and registration process to ensure equity and avoid further despair and chaos.
Online registration is an ineffective way for vaccinations to reach their most vulnerable targets. To rectify the inequities present in the digital vaccine sign-up system, states and the federal government need to make aggressive accommodations for those living in economically depressed, low-income and elderly areas. For instance, Congress should lend states money to run advertisements on various platforms, such as the radio, newspaper or TV, explaining how to sign up for appointments in each state. Moreover, the government should provide tech-support programs or standardized, accessible websites delegating vaccine distribution and sign-ups. Even better, states should expand registration efforts to include mail-in paper forms. America’s elderly deserve better than to be handed a cumbersome system that reeks of cruel indifference.
This pandemic has revealed this country’s ruthless willingness to leave behind its impoverished and elderly, and in no context is that more pernicious than in America’s vaccination programs. As stimulus checks stay stuck behind thick red tape and we race to vaccinate enough people to end this pandemic, we must confront this crisis in a dignified way. The current systems we are using to distribute vaccines harm older, lower-income Americans and must be adjusted so that those most at risk are inoculated first.
The above editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s Editorial Board. The Editorial Board is composed of Sahar Al-Gazzali, Brammhi Balarajan, Viviana Barreto, Rachel Broun, Jake Busch, Sara Khan, Sophia Ling, Martin Shane Li, Demetrios Mammas, Meredith McKelvey, Sara Perez, Ben Thomas, Leah Woldai, Lynnea Zhang and Yun Zhu.