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The Digital Divide Is Deepening Vaccine Frustrations

Those without access to modern technology and the Internet are struggling to navigate the COVID-19 vaccination process. Many on the wrong end of the digital divide are the most at risk of infection.

an elderly woman getting a vaccine
Shutterstock/Rido
(TNS) — Dianne Kricheldorf was angry and frustrated.

"I am 87 years old. I do not have a computer and I have been trying to get numbers to call so I can get an appointment to get a vaccination for COVID-19," she said in a terse one minute, 47-second voicemail last week. "I go. I call the numbers and it gives me a computer method of getting an appointment. So if I don't have a computer, I can't get one. ... I think there's a lot of us seniors and people who cannot afford computers in this area that are being neglected."
 
It's one of the ironies of the pandemic. Many of the people who are at the highest risk of getting severely sick or dying of COVID-19 are also the least likely to have the technological access and ability to get themselves an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine. Without a computer, it's a struggle just trying to find where the vaccines are being offered. And it's difficult to actually book an appointment if you don't have a computer or smartphone. The state health department, county health departments and pharmacies all rely on online portals for people to find and make appointments. With demand at fever pitch, even those who have Internet access have struggled to find an appointment as they're snatched up within minutes if not seconds of being offered.
 
Older people. Poor people. People of color. People who live in rural areas with limited or no broadband. People who don't speak English or can't read. They are all among the categories of people that government agencies say they want to make sure are included in the mass rollout of vaccinations. But they're being left behind. Kricheldorf is a perfect example.
 
The retired Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda sixth-grade school teacher is by no means helpless, she explained to The News. She's driven across the country by herself many times. She mows her own lawn and does her own snow blowing. She even does her own plumbing and did all the wiring in a rental home she bought that she is slowly fixing by herself. She bought a computer many years ago, but it grew obsolete and she didn't want to spend $700 to $800 for a new one, in addition to the cost of Internet access. She doesn't like smartphones. Her nephew talked her into carrying a flip phone for which she buys 250 minutes at a time for $29 per card.
 
Since January, when New York State opened up eligibility for the vaccines to people 65 and over, Kricheldorf has been trying to get an appointment. Without a computer, it has been tough. Anytime she saw a phone number to call about vaccines, she tried. Sometimes it just rang. Often it led to a recorded message. "And then you just get a computer referral," Kricheldorf said. She went to a local independent pharmacy and ended up on a wait list — with about 5,000 people ahead of her.
"They said we'll call you when it's your time," she said.

DIGITAL DIVIDE

The U.S. hit a significant milestone in the vaccine rollout process last week with 100 million doses administered so far. But there's no question the rollout has been a bumpy and frustrating one, especially for people with limited or no access to the Internet. The pandemic first exposed that digital divide for children as schools across the nation turned to remote learning. Then came the vaccine appointment process.
 
At first, the 65-and-older population in New York could only get appointments at pharmacies and that often required getting online and constantly refreshing websites until an appointment became available. The state then began setting up "pop-up" vaccine sites to try to reach more people of color and populations that were seeing lower-than-average vaccination rates. But because those appointments were available to anyone in the state, there was no way to limit them to the people who actually live in the neighborhoods where the clinics were being held. Then more categories of people became eligible, including people with certain medical conditions.
 
Both urban and rural communities have struggled. Earlier this month the state opened up a mass vaccine site at Genesee Community College. But within 90 minutes of the announcement, all 3,500 appointments were taken. Less than a quarter went to people who live in Genesee, Orleans or Wyoming counties. Half went to Erie County residents.
 
"With limited vaccine access and many of our residents with limited/no broadband or computers, it is difficult to access the online registration," said Orleans County Public Health educator Nola Goodrich-Kresse. Offices for the Aging in Genesee and Orleans counties have been trying to help people 60 and over make appointments. For those younger, she said right now they are referring them to libraries and urging them to seek help from friends and family.
 
"We understand this is a challenge and we are working with the state to help them understand the challenges many rural counties face, especially regarding Internet access and limited vaccine access," she said.

STEPPING UP

Public health departments are aware of the issue and are trying to find ways to address it.
The Erie County Health Department is preparing to turn the county's COVID-19 information hotline into a number where people can call to schedule appointments at county-run vaccination sites. In the meantime, the county has been screening the information line for people who are homebound to try to get them the county's limited supply of one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Health Department spokeswoman Kara Kane said "plans are taking shape with ECDOH, the Erie County Department of Social Services, and the Erie County Office for People with Disabilities to partner with local groups for outreach to older adults and others who may not have Internet access or smartphones for appointments and education."
 
Several branches of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library also began offering in-person assistance in booking vaccines. Jericho Road Community Health Center, which has clinics on both the East and West sides of Buffalo, has been administering hundreds of vaccines every week.
Unlike most vaccine sites, Jericho's staff are the ones who do the reaching out. "Hello, this is Jericho Road Community Health calling," said Dil Bhujel into a portable phone Thursday afternoon as she was seated with two other staffers at a long fold-up table at Jericho's clinic at 1021 Broadway.
 
"I'm calling people to make sure they show up," Bhujel explained. She and the other staffers also are making calls throughout the day to patients at the clinics to offer them the vaccine, schedule their appointments and then remind them to show up. They're also reaching out to residents of ZIP codes 14201, 14203, 14207, 14211, 14212, 14213 and 14215. They have an online portal too, but they know their patients and the people in the communities they serve may not be able to navigate a website, especially those whose first language isn't English.
 
"It's hard," said Laura Pearman, a community health worker who put together a spreadsheet of patients to determine who was eligible and who should be called. "A lot of people don't speak English. Sometimes they just hang up." Among those receiving her first dose of the Moderna vaccine Thursday afternoon was Tasheaka Jones, who does custodial work and lives in Buffalo. "I feel like I want to live," she said, as she prepared to get her shot. She rolled up her sleeve for the nurse, Danesha McLaughlin, who coaxed her into relaxing her left arm then expertly injected her. "You did it?" Jones said, when she realized it was over. "Girl, I didn't even know!"

GETTING AN APPOINTMENT

Last week after Dianne Kricheldorf left the message with The News, I called her back. "A lot of seniors do not have smartphones. They do not have computers," she told me. I told her about the state's COVID-19 vaccine number — 833-NYS-4-VAX (1-833-697-4829). I had heard from other people I had interviewed that they had luck calling that one. She called me back to let me know that she was able to talk to a real person but was told there were no appointments at the time at any of the state-run sites nearby.
 
Then I offered to see if maybe I could help. She agreed. I got her information and logged on to the state website and began trying, hitting refresh every few minutes. I knew from my colleague Tom Precious' account about getting a vaccine that the state's website tended to add new appointments at the bottom and top of the hour. I opened up a couple more websites for drug store chains. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh.
 
Then suddenly on the CVS page — appointments were available in just two days.
I began plugging in Kricheldorf's information but realized I needed more. I called her and the phone rang and rang and rang. My heart sank. Did she leave her house? Could she not hear the phone?
Then she picked up. "I got an appointment!" I told her. And she was all set to get her first dose.
 
©2021 The Buffalo News, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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