Stephie Byars and her husband were in a Giant Eagle parking lot when they got the Allegheny Alert.
“We turned off the car. I had my husband call up his parents on his phone and put it on speaker, and I went onto my phone and did the tech stuff,” said Byars, 37, of Dravosburg.
There were appointments open at the county’s vaccine distribution site in Monroeville. The Byars family was just one of thousands rushing to get signed up.
Talking with her in-laws, both in their 70s, she went through the health department’s online sign-up sheet on her own phone, zooming in on the form and noting how the site lagged while she tried to zip through the process.
She successfully made an appointment for her father-in-law for Feb. 12. Then, navigating back to the start of the form, she began the process again for her mother-in-law. It was too late. Within minutes, all of the slots were filled.
In the Pittsburgh region and across the country, young and millennial residents describe dropping everything to help their elderly relatives sign up for the covid-19 vaccine — often available only through online forms. Many older residents in Western Pennsylvania say they don’t have computers or internet access, or aren’t tech literate enough to navigate the process.
“The accessibility for folks that are older and not tech savvy,” Byars said, “really strikes me as lacking.”
Byars said her in-laws have a computer and an iPad, but they are not well-versed in the technology. She said they haven’t even seen the confirmation email for the appointment yet, because her mother-in-law doesn’t know how to access her email.
“I guess it’s just hard for us to do that — it’s a generational thing,” said Tamara Thomas, 70, Byars’ mother-in-law, who said she has been sheltering in place for almost a year. “We can’t navigate the way they want us to.”
Thomas said she is grateful to have children who can help.
“I think they’re forgetting those of us that are older don’t have the same tools,” Thomas said.
The problem goes beyond inconvenience, advocates and family members say. The plethora of providers, each with their own registration system and login, creates a system that’s difficult to navigate for even the most tech-literate of residents. The map of vaccine providers available on the Pennsylvania Department of Health website lists many pharmacies that, upon further investigation, don’t actually have vaccine supply. Family members say they are struggling to balance their own full-time jobs and covid concerns with calling dozens of vaccine providers, spending hours on hold and getting booted from overcrowded websites.
For older residents with little technology experience, taking on such a task is next to impossible to imagine. Bill Johnson-Walsh, Pennsylvania’s state director for AARP, said there are many residents who don’t have any kind of device access, and if they do, it’s usually just to communicate with their grandchildren or play games.
“It is statewide,” Johnson-Walsh said. “The frustration, the confusion that’s going on. We’ve been seeing several hundred calls in the last couple of weeks, just asking for help.”
In a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf, Johnson-Walsh and AARP recommended a centralized 800 number for people to call to have their questions answered, a system in which a real person can walk them through the process. Johnson-Walsh understands the state’s decentralized approach to vaccine distribution — leaving independent hospitals and other providers to administer doses on their own — but for many of the state’s most at-risk residents, the lack of accessible information puts lifesaving vaccine out of reach.
“In order for us to make sure that that death rate goes down, we need to be able to vaccinate those that are most at risk,” he said.
April Hutcheson, a Pennsylvania Department of Health spokeswoman, said the department operates an 877 information line, which people can call for questions about the process, but, ultimately, making the appointment will be online. The Area Agencies on Aging, from the Department of Aging, also are working to reach older residents in their communities, she said.
“It isn’t going to be one agency that is able to facilitate all this,” she said. “This is the biggest vaccination effort to happen in this state and in this nation in our history. It is going to take all of us to help through that vaccination process.”
In Allegheny County, officials on Wednesday acknowledged difficulties with the health department’s current system. Dr. Debra Bogen, health director for the county, said the department is devising plans to deliver vaccines to senior high rises and similar communities, make improvements to the website to prevent it from crashing and set up a phone registration line.
“I know that this puts a disadvantage to those who don’t have access to the internet, those who can’t navigate those tricky registration sites and those who can’t spend all day looking at a computer and clicking on links in hopes of getting an appointment,” Bogen said.
In the meantime, she asked that residents help each other navigate the current process.
“It would be great if you can help your parents, help your grandparents, help your neighbors,” Bogen said. “I know the online registration system can be confusing to navigate, even if you’re a little computer savvy. So, imagine if you’re not computer savvy.”
Many are already doing so, but it’s not a sustainable strategy. Jerilyn Scott, a teacher in Sewickley, said she has called providers large and small — everywhere from Giant Eagle and Rite Aid to local independent pharmacies and the region’s health systems — in the hopes of getting vaccine for her 82-year-old mother.
“Even for me, trying to navigate it is a mess,” Scott said.
Scott described a maze of websites and links and conflicting information from different agencies on how to arrange a vaccine appointment. She said she often has reached out to providers listed on the Allegheny County’s map as having vaccine only to learn they don’t. Last week, she waited three hours in Giant Eagle’s online queue, hoping for a slot. She gave up when the website told her she still had more than an hour left.
She understands there is a statewide supply issue. But with reports of inconsistent vaccine distribution, including people in Phase 1B and later groups getting access, and a general feeling of disorganization about the rollout process, she has little faith that her mother will receive the vaccine in a timely manner. It feels like the “Wild West,” she said.
“If I felt like there was a logical, well-organized system in place, I would be fine with her waiting her turn in line,” Scott said. “My problem is, I have a feeling all kinds of people are able to jump the line because there is no system. … She’s not ever going to get her turn.”
A centralized system or a phone line that her mom could easily reach would be a start to a solution, she said. For now, Scott is expanding her search to surrounding counties.
“I’ll drive her an hour or two to do it, I’ll take a day off work,” she said.
Residents all over Western Pennsylvania echoed similar sentiments. The desperation to inoculate their older relatives, many of whom have been locked down for months, is growing.
“If I don’t get a vaccine until October, I don’t care,” said Arlan Hess, a Mt. Lebanon resident and owner of City Books on Pittsburgh’s North Side. “But my mom needs to be vaccinated because she’s not going to survive this if she gets it.”
Hess has been trying to arrange a vaccine appointment for her 79-year-old mother who lives in Washington County and has CVID (a chronic immune deficiency). She signed her up on waiting lists in Donora, Bethel Park, Jefferson Hills, anywhere that will take her name. Meanwhile, she’s tightened restrictions at her business, purchased an expensive air filter and limited her own contact with people to keep her mother safe.
She has tried twice to register her mother for the vaccine through the Allegheny County Health Department, but no matter how quickly she logged on, it always seemed like the spaces were already full. After the most recent Allegheny Alert, Hess almost made it through the form. But she needed her mother to send a photo of her insurance information, and her mother doesn’t know how to send pictures with her phone.
Hess isn’t sure what the solution is. A centralized phone line couldn’t hurt, but she doesn’t know if it would help either. At this point, she said, she doesn’t know who to direct her frustration at.
“I’m not sure any of us trust government of any kind,” she said.
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