Our vaccine distribution may not be serving the most vulnerable population

Elise Eifert, Ph.D, Graduate Gerontology Program Coordinator, School of Health and Human Sciences, UNC Greensboro

The introduction of two vaccines brings us miles closer to seeing these “unprecedented times” behind us. However, I think we still have more hurdles to face between now and seeing this virus in the rearview mirror.

Courtesy of UNC Greensboro

Most counties are facing a struggle to administer vaccinations because federal mandates get passed down to states, which then get passed to counties with little to no guidance or funding. Without federal guidelines, states have the freedom to choose how they wish to distribute vaccines. This has led to significant differences in vaccine distribution from state to state and even county by county. However, I’m not sure it’s fair to be overly critical of vaccine distributions when many public health departments are doing the best they can with the resources they have and without robust procedures to guide them.

I currently work as the program coordinator for the Masters in Gerontology in the School of Health and Human Sciences at UNC Greensboro (UNCG) and hold a graduate certificate in gerontology from UNCG, as well as a Ph.D. in Public Health Education. Since December, I have been patiently waiting for my turn to receive the Covid-19 vaccine. As an educator, I am considered an essential worker in North Carolina (Phase 3) and the vaccine is supposed to be available “soon.”

I have also been advocating for my parents and my husband’s parents to get the vaccine. All four fall into Group 2 (65+) of the vaccine rollout. With my parents living in Texas and my in-laws in Illinois, I have had the opportunity to hear how states other than North Carolina are handling vaccine distribution. For example, both Illinois and Texas are booking appointments online. My in-laws were unable to find any available appointments near where they live. However, their son, my brother-in-law, was able to find openings in a county almost 2.5 hours away where they were willing (and able) to drive just to receive the vaccination. My parents, on the other hand, were able to make appointments in their county rather quickly. They received a number upon registration — approximately 150,000. Much like the deli ticket number, their number will eventually be called, and then they will be able to get their vaccines. We have no idea when that will be.

As a daughter of older adults and as a Gerontologist, I am not sure I would call the vaccine rollout very “elder friendly.” This is surprising if you consider people 65 and older are some of the most important recipients of the vaccine. It has been tough to see my loved ones go out of their way to receive a vaccination or to be waitlisted for an unknown amount of time. I am computer savvy enough to be able to check the county health department website daily. I have also registered for text alerts and I follow them on social media so I can see announcements. It’s been tedious to monitor them but I do not want to miss my opportunity. Everything I have seen so far is that vaccination appointments fill up within an hour. In my opinion, it is unreasonable to expect older adults to do these same things. I cannot help but think there has got to be a better way. From communication about the vaccines (Is funneling all communication to a website the best way to reach older adults?) to appointment booking (Are online platforms the best way to schedule vaccination appointments for older adults? Is the burden of getting a loved one vaccinated falling on families?) to actually getting the vaccine (Are long lines at unfamiliar, large community locations convenient for older adults?), I’m not sure much thought was given to our aging population and how they might navigate getting vaccinated.

C/o Unsplash, Adrien Delforge

Issues related to vaccine distribution are affecting more than just our elder population as well. I have several students who are family caregivers, and have been struggling to get their parents, or older family members vaccinated. Particularly for students in school, whether that’s a university or community college, or even high school, getting aging or vulnerable parents vaccines is quite a large added responsibility.

Other students in the UNCG Gerontology program who are working in the medical or healthcare fields while pursuing their degrees, have already been lucky enough to receive their vaccines as essential workers.

Melissa, who is working as a clinical research coordinator at the Penn Memory Center in Philadelphia while working on her Master in Gerontology, was able to receive the vaccine. The health system was separated into categories based on their likelihood of exposure (e.g., emergency department first) and what was deemed the most ethical distribution for healthcare workers, who were in the first round of people vaccinated in Pennsylvania. Less than a month after the first employees got their vaccinations, she received an email to schedule.

“I honestly feel torn to have already received the vaccine. I am so grateful that I was given the opportunity to receive it, especially because I work in a very large outpatient setting and have contact with countless people coming from three different states (or more) to see our physicians. At the same time, I feel a bit guilty that I received it before so many others,” Melissa shared. “I am young and healthy. If I were to get Covid-19, I would likely be able to recover in my own home without intervention. So many older adults, my family members included, and people at risk due to health conditions have to wait months until they’ll be able to receive their vaccine. On the other hand, it also makes me feel hopeful that we’re on our way out of this pandemic.”

For Jesse who also works with a vulnerable population (adults 60+, some with memory loss), receiving the vaccine ensured she could continue offering programs for these older adults while maintaining their safety.

“Receiving the vaccine made me feel like I was doing everything in my power to protect the older individuals our agency serves. I still wear my mask, wash my hands, use plexiglass between employees, etc., but having received the vaccine gives me the extra confidence that I’m doing all I can to protect them,” Jesse said. “I also feel more confident in my ability to advocate for my seniors getting the vaccine because I have also gotten it. As trusted members of the community, Council on Aging employees have a unique position to act as an example to a population who looks to us for advice.”

All this is not meant to blame anyone or belittle the enormity of what we’re undertaking in trying to vaccinate an entire country in record time. No matter the plan, there were bound to be hiccups and road blocks along the way. But awareness needs to be brought to how some older adults may be challenged by the process of getting vaccinated. If we can adapt and learn as we continue in this process, then I believe we will be more successful at getting our entire nation protected.

The official account of UNC Greensboro, a public university in NC committed to success for every student.

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