‘Falling through cracks’: Vaccine bypasses some older adults

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Pat Brown waits outside the Don Bosco Senior Center in Kansas City, Mo., Wednesday, March 3, 2021. Brown knows she needs the vaccine because her asthma and diabetes put her at higher risk of serious COVID-19 complications. But Wall hasnt attempted to schedule an appointment and didnt even know if they were being offered in her area yet; she says she is too overwhelmed. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

PORTLAND, Ore. – Jean Andrade, an 88-year-old who lives alone, has been waiting for her COVID-19 vaccine since she became eligible under state guidelines nearly a month ago. She assumed her caseworker would contact her about getting one, especially after she spent nearly two days stuck in an electric recliner during a recent power outage.

It was only after she saw a TV news report about competition for the limited supply of shots in Portland, Oregon, that she realized no one was scheduling her dose. A grocery delivery service for homebound older people eventually provided a flyer with vaccine information, and Andrade asked a helper who comes by for four hours a week to try to snag her an appointment.

“I thought it would be a priority when you’re 88 years old and that someone would inform me," said Andrade, who has lived in the same house for 40 years and has no family members able to assist her. “You ask anybody else who's 88, 89, and don’t have anybody to help them, ask them what to do. Well, I’ve still got my brain, thank God. But I am very angry.”

Older adults have top priority in COVID-19 immunization drives the world over right now, and hundreds of thousands of them are spending hours online, enlisting their children’s help and traveling hours to far-flung pharmacies in a desperate bid to secure a COVID-19 vaccine. But an untold number like Andrade are getting left behind, unseen, because they are too overwhelmed, too frail or too poor to fend for themselves.

The urgency of reaching this vulnerable population before the nation's focus turns elsewhere is growing as more Americans in other age and priority groups become eligible for vaccines. With the clock ticking and many states extending shots to people as young as 55, nonprofits, churches and advocacy groups are scrambling to find isolated elders and get them inoculated before they have to compete with an even bigger pool — and are potentially forgotten about as vaccination campaigns move on.

An extreme imbalance between vaccine supply and demand in almost every part of the United States makes securing a shot a gamble. In Oregon, Andrade is vying with as many as 750,000 residents age 65 and older, and demand is so high that appointments for the weekly allotment of doses in Portland are snapped up in less than an hour. On Monday, the city's inundated vaccine information call line shut down by 9 a.m., and online booking sites have crashed.

Amid such frenzy, the vaccine rollout here and elsewhere has strongly favored healthier seniors with resources “who are able to jump in their car at a moment’s notice and drive two hours” while more vulnerable older adults are overlooked, said James Stowe, the director of aging and adult services for an association of city and county governments in the bistate Kansas City area.

"Why weren’t they the thrust of our efforts, the very core of what we wanted to do? Why didn’t it include this group from the very outset?” he said of the most vulnerable seniors.