Tech troubles snarl seniors’ attempts to sign up for vaccines

February 5, 2021

Seniors are supposed to be among the first Americans to get COVID-19 vaccines, but they're running into a major problem: Signing up for the appointments online.

Orb Health

(Source: Axios)

Seniors are supposed to be among the first Americans to get COVID-19 vaccines, but they’re running into a major problem: Signing up for the appointments online.

The big picture: Millions of older Americans aren’t online at all, and many who do have internet access are struggling to find and use the sign-up portals that local health officials have scrambled to set up.

Driving the news: “Americans over the age of 50 are unsure how to make or confirm their appointment and are deeply frustrated and increasingly desperate,” AARP executive vice president Nancy LeaMond wrote to the House Energy and Commerce committee this week.

  • “Many do not have access to the internet or do not have experience using online appointment systems.”

By the numbers: Though internet use among seniors is on the rise, nearly 22 million seniors, or 42% of the nation’s over-65 population, lack broadband access at home, according to a January report from Older Adults Technology Services, a nonprofit affiliate of AARP.

  • 80% of U.S. COVID-19 deaths have been seniors.

Meanwhile: With cities and counties largely left to stand up sign-up websites on their own, there’s no standardized process seniors can follow to register for vaccine appointments.

  • Unintuitive user interfaces and other tech barriers are driving seniors to simply give up altogether on trying to sign up, said OATS executive director Thomas Kamber.
  • And traffic surges have caused some portals to crash or stall, keeping even determined users from being able to register.

“This is the kind of problem technology can solve,” Kamber said. “But it requires a minimum level of technology capacity and engagement, which as a country we’ve failed to create the baseline for among seniors. And we’re seeing the consequences right now.”

In the absence of a clear technological solution, elder advocates see promise in analog alternatives.

  • LeaMond urged the federal government to work with states, localities and the private sector to turn more pharmacies into vaccination sites, and to set up 1-800 numbers for vaccine appointments.
  • Many states have opened hotlines or have partnered with retirement communities and senior center neighborhoods to go door-knocking.
  • OATS is focused on making existing online sign-up processes easier on seniors. Resources it’s offering include a hotline in New York that coaches seniors through online vaccine registration and call and email support in San Antonio, Texas.

Yes, but: An online appointment system has its advantages. In early January, some states like in Florida and California had a first-come, first-serve system where many seniors well over the age of 65 waited in line or in their cars for hours for a chance at a dose.

  • “It was like trying to find when the new Xbox came out. You don’t want that as your system for … vaccines,” said Ross Silverman, professor of health policy and management at Indiana University.

What’s next: Advocates say it’s long past time for the U.S. to prioritize getting seniors connected to the internet.

  • Peter Kaldes, CEO of the American Society on Aging, told Axios he’d like to see lawmakers enact emergency funding for infrastructure to support individual sign-up portals — and to subsidize broadband connections for older Americans.
  • “We’ve accepted this digital divide as a silent crisis for decades,” said OATS’ Kamber. “Four out of 10 older people in America can’t connect to the internet from home. We’ve been acting like that’s OK.”